Thursday, September 13, 2012

Spiders on a Space Station

As astronaut Don Pettit showed us during his Science off the Sphere video series, you can do a lot of cool things in space's microgravity environment. So what science experiments would you conduct aboard the International Space Station, given the chance?

NASA, the European Space Agency and several other sponsors posed that question to high school students from around the world for the Youtube Spacelab Competition. After paring down Youtube video submissions from students, two winning experiments were chosen to be completed on the ISS. Today, the students got to see the results from their experiments beamed down to Earth via a live, streaming broadcast hosted by Bill Nye.

One experiment tested the virulence of bacteria from miles above the surface. But the subject of the second winning experiment might inspire a new Samuel L. Jackson blockbuster: jumping spiders on a space station.

Image Courtesy NASA.

Amr Mohamed, a high school student from Egypt, wondered what would happen if the Zebra Jumping Spider were taken miles above its natural environment. On earth, the spider can leap onto its prey — usually smaller insects — from great distances. In microgravity, however, the trajectory of their jump would change dramatically. If the spider aimed where they usually do on earth, they would simply keep flying through the air over their target.

Amr Mohamed, one of the contest's global winners, proposed his ISS experiment in this video.

Mohamed hypothesized that the spiders would, at least initially, totally miss their targets in the new environment. After enough training in microgravity, Mohamed wondered if spiders might catch on and adapt their jumping techniques.

Apparently, they did. Astronaut Sunita Williams watched one cosmo-spider over the past few weeks, and it changed its jumping technique to adapt to its new environment.

"I think the spiders absolutely adapted to space," Williams said during today's live webcast from the ISS.

For the other experiment, Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma from Flint, Michigan wanted to measure microgravity's effects on the virulence of a fungicide. They hypothesized that some time on the ISS would make the bacteria more infectious. During today's livecast, astronaut Sunita Williams noted that preliminary observations revealed that the students' hypothesis might be correct. They won't know for sure until they can experiment on the bacteria when it returns to earth, however.

Dorothy Chen and Sara Ma's experiment earned the second winning spot for the contest.

Earlier this year, the three global winners (two entries) earned a trip to Washington DC and a "zero-g" flight aboard the infamous vomit comet aircraft. You can learn more about the winners in the video below.

In case you missed the broadcast earlier today, you can watch a repeat of it here.

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