Research Matters

Research Matters

Butterflies in space

When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Nov. 16, three monarch caterpillars from the University of Kansas were on board for the trip to the International Space Station. The trio are the first of their species in space.

Aired November 22, 2009

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When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off this week, three monarch caterpillars became the first of their species in space. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I'm Brendan Lynch.

Monarch Watch - a KU-based network of volunteers and researchers who study the monarch butterfly - provided a trio of caterpillars to NASA for the voyage to the International Space Station. The insects should go through metamorphosis to emerge as adult butterflies in 17 days while in low Earth orbit. Chip Taylor directs Monarch Watch.

Chip Taylor: We're going to try to learn as much as we can about this insect and how it functions in space. This is an insect that seems to use gravity a lot. It has a lot of orientation features that indicate that gravity is very important for it. But, up in that environment, it's only going to have microgravity. How they adapt to those conditions is going to be very interesting. There are at least five different ways that this butterfly could have problems up in space.

Monarch Watch is participating in the butterfly experiment at the invitation of BioServe Space Technologies, a center within the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Chip Taylor: They approached us last April and said, 'We're trying to get monarchs in space. I said, 'Really? Well, that's wonderful. Tell me about what you're trying to do.' And they asked, 'Are you guys doing anything with an artificial diet?' And I said, 'You called at the right time, because we're making good progress with an artificial diet.

At the same time, Monarch Watch will send similar collections of butterfly caterpillars and artificial diets to hundreds of elementary schools around the country, so that students can track development of the monarchs in space, and compare their growth to monarchs in the classroom.

Chip Taylor: "The students are going to get a good look at what normal larvae do, and that should help them understand what's going on in the space capsule as well. They're going to be placing caterpillars in their capsules at the same time that the capsules are loaded up for the Space Shuttle."

For more about monarchs in space, log onto Research Matters dot K-U dot E-D-U. For the University of Kansas, I'm Brendan Lynch.

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