Ants in Space: Shuttle Hosts High-Flying School Project

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
January 29, 2003
Some strange, six-legged astronauts are in orbit above the Earth. A team of U.S. high school students has launched 15 ants with the space shuttle Columbia, hoping to learn how space's extremely low gravity might affect the ants' behavior.

Students at Fowler High School in Syracuse, New York, have spent three years working on the ants' rocket ride. With help from Syracuse University researchers, these ants carve tunnels in zero gravity—one of more than 80 experiments happening during the shuttle's 16-day mission, which launched January 16.

The project started in 2000 when space supplier SPACEHAB's Space Technology and Research Students program came looking for a central New York school to work on an experiment. The company worked with U.S. Congressman James Walsh, from the 25th congressional district of New York, to team up with Syracuse University, who in turn selected Fowler High School because of their vision to become a magnet school for students interested in math, science, and engineering.

Teacher Charlotte Archabald was thrilled. "I've always been a huge fan of space," Archabald said. "So I raised my hand and said, `I want to do that!'"

Students started signing up for the project as well. Seniors Brad Miller, Rachel Poppe and Abby Golash began working with the ants during their first year of high school. Sophomore Liban Mohamed is a more recent addition to the ant team.

Ants Picked For Space Mission

Ants were chosen for the mission; when offered the choice between a plant and an animal experiment, the Fowler folks figured animals would be more exciting. Their ants join student experiments from Australia, China, Liechtenstein, Israel, and Japan.

The ants spinning about in space are harvester ants, large ants found normally in the western United States, not in space. This species was chosen because the ants are pretty tough, and also big enough to observe as they tunnel through their new digs. The ants usually make colonies in sand and dirt, chewing through the ground to form their mounds.

Students tested a range of materials for the ants' space flight, trying to find something that could withstand the stress of launch and space travel while providing them with food. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, helped them settle on a gel made with seaweed extract. While these ants normally feast on grass seeds and insect parts, the gel is chock-full of amino acids, sugars, and fungicides to keep the ants well nourished.

The launch of ants and their habitat was scheduled for May 2001. It was postponed. And then postponed again. Archabald said that there had been 19 delays before the ants finally headed skyward.

Rachel Poppe, who started working with the ants as a sophomore, thought she'd be in college before the ants finally made it. "We had stopped crossing our fingers and just thought it will happen when it happens," she said.

On January 16, three teachers and four students headed down to Florida to watch the ants lift off. "The day of the launch, I looked at Abby and said, It's finally done," said Poppe.

Mohamed, a sophomore, said: "It was awesome, I could feel the rumble and everything." Also awesome was the students' VIP seats only three-and-a-half miles from the launch pad, right between congressman Walsh and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Back in Syracuse, students filled the auditorium to watch the launch.

Watching Ants In Action

Now, the students are checking the progress of the ants through a Web feed.

The team predicted that the microgravity would affect how the ants acted in space. In previous ant experiments at the high school, students have spotted ants tunneling around the outside of their domains, as well as burying their dead. In space, "they're tunneling kind of randomly," Miller said.

The 15 ants in space seem to be even more active than their on-the-ground relatives. This isn't what the students expected—they thought the journey might disorient the insects. Instead, the astronomical ants are full of energy, said teacher Archabald.

Eric Spina, associate dean of Syracuse University's L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, said while these tunneling ants may not make revolutionary changes in science, there's no doubt in his mind that people are going to be spending much more time in space—and any knowledge of space's effects can help this process. "The more diversity we can get up in space now, the better off we'll be at developing an understanding of how microgravity affects living things," he said. "Ants are another rung in this ladder."

The most important part of projects like these, he said, is student involvement. "The main motivation is getting kids excited by math and science," Spina said.

While these Fowler students seem to have caught the bug for science—three of them want to continue in the field in some form—grim reality will soon set in. After the ants return February 1, the students will have a report due in a month, as well as a paper due at the end of the term.

"The launch was fun, but we know we still have work to do," said Poppe.

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