Bugs in Space: Why study insects in micro-gravity?

Bugs in Space

It has been said that finding a spider in your home symbolizes good health, wealth, and cleanliness. But what if you went to work surrounded by crickets, rodents, frogs, newts, fruit flies, snails, fish, monkeys, dogs, silkworms, carpenter bees, harvester ants and nematodes? Would you holler for help?

Let’s have a quick look at the history and reasons for taking live animals into orbit.

Image: NASA

Over the last 70 years all the big sprinters in the space race have used animals as guinea pigs. Back in 1947 a handful of fruit flies were the first to be strapped to a captured German V2-rocket; they reached an altitude of 68 miles and returned to Earth safely. Then over the next 20 years a succession of higher animals (including an actual guinea pig) became the unwilling participants in research on things like solar radiation at high altitude, the ability to carry out tasks in micro-gravity and the effects of space flight on bodily functions.

In the 1970s with manned spaceflight all the rage, scientists’ focus shifted to more complex problems. For example some tests were carried out on the effects of motion sickness in frogs, others on the regeneration of newt limbs and yet others looked at how spiders spun their webs in micro-gravity. The last 30 years have still seen numerous insects propelled into space including ants, cockroaches and moths but the observations have grown more clinical and ethical.

Image: NASA

One of the most recent large scale bio experiments took place in 2014 when 800 ants were sent to the International Space Station. Astronauts were able to study their foraging behavior in micro-gravity and drew some interesting conclusions about their 150-million-year-old instincts.

On Earth, ants are capable of understanding their community’s population density by counting the number of times they touch each other with their antennae. The higher number of contacts obviously indicates larger numbers of ants in the colony allowing them to be more thorough in their search for food; they move in a tight circular pattern confident that the location will yield something tasty.

As you might have guessed, in the micro-gravity of space, things are a little different. Because each ant finds itself further apart, they perceive the population to be scarce. Consequently, with great presence of mind their movements are much more straight-lined in order to cover more ground to find food.

Image: vox.com

How does this apply to our lives and the cultural evolution going on around us?

NASA believes the way in which ants react to their environment may give developers of AI (Artificial Intelligence) some food for thought. In terms of internet connectivity, Stanford University biology professor Deborah Gordon, an expert on animal collective behavior said in a statement, “Learning about the ants’ solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems.” So too would it have some implications for robotics, according to the Administration.

The way ants forage is by way of an inbuilt algorithm (a series of actions to be performed) honed throughout their evolution. Studying the way in which these bio-algorithms alter in space provides valuable clues to the development of our own space robotics. So too will understanding the basic nature of the ants’ working practice allow scientists and engineers to consider new ways of connectivity and improved data networks going forward.

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