Ep. 445: Animals in Space Pt. 1: Insects and Arachnids

We’ve talked about animals traveling to space in the past, but it’s time to take another look, with many other creatures making the trip to the void. Today we’re going to talk about the spineless insects and arthropods, and those tough-as-nails waterbears – tardigrades.

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Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 445: Animals in Space; Insects and Arachnids

Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.

My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the director of CosmoQuest.

Hey, Pamela. How are you doin’?

Pamela: I’m doin’ well. How are you doing?

Fraser: Doing really well.

So, I’ve done a couple of question shows over on my YouTube channel and it’s been a lot of fun. I did one for a high school – or elementary school – out of the UK and I just did one for Physics Forums.

So, I just want to put the word out: If you are a science teacher and you’ve got a class and you want me to answer a bunch of questions for your class, drop me an email and, if I’ve got time, I would love to do that. Like, you know, 12 questions or so – 20 questions; that’s about as many as I can do. And I will record a YouTube video and I will return it back to you as quickly as I can. So, if you’re a science teacher out there, or just a teacher, and you’ve got kids that are studying space, astronomy, space exploration – things like that – then allow me to make you a video.

Alright. Did you have any shameless self-promotion, Pamela? I guess that wasn’t really shameless self-promotion but – anything people should be aware of?

Pamela: No. I’m just thinkin’ that sounds kind of awesome. So, yeah – take him up on his offer.

Fraser: Take me up on my offer, while the offer stands.

We’ve talked about animals traveling to space in the past but it’s time to take another look, with many other creatures making the trip to the void. Today we’re going to talk about those spineless insects and arachnids and those tough-as-nails water bears.

Now, Pamela, we have done an episode on animals in space: Episode 278, named “Animals in Space”, but just because we’ve covered a topic once in the past, doesn’t mean that we can’t come back around and approach it again with more detail – and that is what’s happening today is we are beginning what feels like a three-part series. Today, we’re going to be talking about the little guys; tomorrow we’re going to be talking about the sort of stuff in between, that may or may not have a skeleton; and then, Part 3, we’ll talk about the tragic tale of chimps in space.

Pamela: I have to say, this was entirely inspired by Susie asking me what we should talk about, at a moment in time when I had absolutely no ideas and was reading Scott Sigler’s new book, which involves spiders – but with five legs and on another planet – and I was like, “Spiders in space! We need to do spiders in space.” And so, we went down this rabbit hole because I also remembered there’s a fruit fly experiment up on the International Space Station. And so, this episode really comes to you because of Scott Sigler.

Fraser: Thank you, Scott. Although, I mean, reading Scott Sigler books is a terrifying experience. Like, read his books, you know – in a bright room with people that you love around you and happy music playing on something nearby because his books are pretty terrifying.

Pamela: But they’re not dystopian fiction.

Fraser: No.

Pamela: No, they’re bio-warfare, scary, from-space but “it all turns out okay in the end” fiction.

Fraser: Oh, spoiler alert!

Okay, sure. So, let’s talk about the exploration of space by the little guys. Where did this start? Who was the first little creature to go to space?

Pamela: Well, fruit flies – fruit flies sort of were the first critter to go up and they just keep going up. People keep sending fruit flies to space.

Now, what’s awesome is we’ve reached the stage, in sending fruit flies to space, where we’re now starting to study the epigenetics of sending fruit flies into space – which, I think, is entirely awesome.

Fraser: What do you mean “the epigenetics” of it?

Pamela: We all have our genes. And you can have two identical twins that have identical genetics and, due to differences in experience – now, here’s where it gets weird.

So, say you have those two identical twins that somehow end up in different people’s bellies. They can have different surrounding experiences that cause one of them to have one set of genes turn on, and the other one doesn’t have that set of genes turn on. So, even though there’s no genetic difference between the two of them, they end up with different abilities to thrive based on how those genes they have: produce proteins; do/don’t work; all those sorts of things.

Fraser: And so, when did fruit flies first make their voyage to the great beyond?

Pamela: Well, all the way back in the ‘50s, fruit flies really were –

Fraser: Wait, is that death? Hmm. “To space” is what I mean.

Pamela: Well, yes. Yes, that’s true.

Fruit flies were one of the first critters sent up – and they keep going up. So, it’s only recently that they’ve been asked to reproduce in space but, yeah, they’ve been in space since the ‘50s.

Fraser: Did that work?

Pamela: Yeah, sort of. The problem is they came back and they didn’t, like, do so well afterwards.

Fraser: Oh, no.

Pamela: So, the problem is – that whole epigenetics thing I brought up – one of the things that folks are really trying to figure out is: If you reproduce in space, is the offspring actually offspring that is viable, here on Earth?

So, they raised two groups of fruit flies: One set of fruit flies in space; another set of fruit flies in a centrifuge here on Earth, where they were actually accelerated to higher-than-normal levels of gravity – and raised an entire, brand-new generation. They had to develop all sorts of technologies for figuring out how to, like, feed fruit flies in zero gravity and all that sort of stuff. And then, they exposed the offspring to a fungus and to E. coli, and all of the flies were cool with the E. coli but the flies from space couldn’t fight off the fungal infection that a normal, happy, healthy fruit fly could fight off.

There was just something about the way their immune system developed, even though they didn’t have a genetic flaw with their immune system. There was something about how their immune system developed in space that made them unable to fight off the fungal infection. And oddly, the group of fruit flies – and this is all the same family of fruit flies; they just divided the children, basically. The fruit flies that grew up in higher-than-normal gravity could more effectively fight off the fungal infection.

And what was kind of awesome is with this experiment, not only did they have to go through the technological rigors of trying to figure out: How do you keep fruit flies alive in space? But they were also using the fruit flies to feed spiders they had in space. So, they had their own little, tiny ecosystem going, with all of these different experiments interleave where, if the fruit flies had all died, the spiders would have starved. And so, it’s interesting the way they’re starting to interleave the dependencies of the experiments.

Fraser: Now, it’s not just been fruit flies; although, as you said – I mean, fruit flies are – I mean, those poor fruit flies. They end up being used for everything. They get a chance to test out various medical treatments; they’re used for testing the way just genes work, in general – epigenetics, things like that.

But what are some other creatures that have been up to space?

Pamela: Hissing cockroaches.

Fraser: Hissing cockroaches, yeah? When did that happen?

Pamela: So, my favorite instance of when that happened – and it’s actually really hard to figure out when are all of the instances of these things happening – but my favorite instance of it happening was with Bigelow’s Genesis I test capsule for their habitat. They had a variety of critters; among which, hissing cockroaches were in the lot. And the idea was to see just how long they could survive, which seems a bit cruel –

Fraser: But that’s, like, asking how long a cockroach can survive. I believe that’s the very definition of how long things that can never be killed can survive.

Pamela: Yes, that would be, I think, part of why they launch things like hissing cockroaches.

Fraser: Hissing cockroaches, yeah.

How’d they do?

Pamela: They were fine until they weren’t. Along with them were 20 Mexican jumping beans.

So, it was launched with compressed air.

Fraser: Which are like little worms, right? Inside the bean – like, a Mexican jumping bean is actually a –

Pamela: Yeah, it’s moth larvae, basically. And the reason the beans jump is because the larvae are twitching and unhappy in their little, confined home.

So, the cockroaches started out alive; they were in a mesh-covered box in the craft. They had some food – dry dog food – they had some water. Launch was a bit delayed. They were subjected to the vacuum of space for a little while, before everything got deployed and inflated. And the real question was going to be: Would they survive all of this? And the answer was: They did, for a little while.

And it proved that hissing cockroaches have the right stuff to survive more than two hours in vacuum. It was about 30 minutes after everything was inflated that they started to see signs of life.

Fraser: Right. And for people who don’t know the Bigelow – I mean, the Bigelow is this inflatable future space hotel run by Bigelow Aerospace. And they’ve also been developing inflatable modules that are going to be attached to the International Space Station and, in theory – in the future, you’ll go to, like, a space hotel in one of these Bigelow modules.

And they’ve launched, I think, a couple of test facilities, so far. I mean, Bigelow has been working on this for a very long time. And I guess, if you’re going to have a hotel in space, you’re gonna want to have space cockroaches in it. Right? Maybe space bed bugs.

Pamela: It’s really horrifying.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: But part of the reason that they pick the critters they pick is there’s actually, usually, educational programs tied in with these experiments. So, a lot of classrooms have hissing cockroaches. A lot of classrooms have fruit flies – Drosophilia melanogaster. That was one of the first formal names of a critter I ever learned because it’s part of standard AP Bio. You do experiments with fruit flies.

And it’s interesting because, trying to look of the results of these experiments is difficult because there are ongoing classrooms of students, studying how the life developed, and they don’t want to give away the answers to the kids. So, if you’re a kid out there listening – who’s doing these experiments in class – you never heard this episode; you never heard a thing. So, they have kids that are doing experiments with the fruit flies. They also have kids that are doing experiments with butterflies, and this is one of the cooler ones.

So, they’ve used Monarch butterflies; they’ve used Ladybird butterflies. And the idea is they fly into space – the eggs – and they look to see: Do they develop in space the same way they do on Earth?

And we learned with the fruit flies that fruit flies actually develop way faster in space. And we’re still trying to figure out why.

Fraser: Well, obviously, it’s the radiation and superpowers that they’re getting. They’re –

Pamela: Exactly. We now have super-mutants going to kill us all.

Fraser: Super-mutant fruit flies, yeah.

Pamela: Exactly.

So, with butterflies, they kind of assumed the butterflies would take significantly less time – and they did. But the real question was – So, butterflies have this metamorphous process that they go through and would they be able to go through that in space? And with the set of Monarchs they had, there were these interesting differences between the control groups that they had here on Earth, including all of the classroom ones, and the butterflies in space.

The caterpillars, for instance, on Earth, tended to mostly chew on food at the top of their little aquarium box. But if you’re a caterpillar in space, there is no up, down, sideways – you’re just going to eat any leaf that happens to get into your mouth. So, they found this completely randomized eating of foliage.

And then, you run into questions, like: Okay, so where are they going to choose to build their little pupa – their caterpillar cocoons? And on Earth, with the Monarchs, they consistently went to the very top of their little habitat; attached to the top, dangled down, curled themselves slightly into the letter J, and then wove themselves a nice, little, silk metamorphosis cocoon.

But in space, what they actually seemed to have done is pretty much spread themselves all out – so that you had, like, one in the left-hand corner, one in the lower right-hand corner. So, they’re in different corners of their set-up and, when they tried to do the “hang down and turn themselves into the J”, there was kind of no gravity involved because – outer space. And this led to several different problems.

The first problem was, normally, what they do is they shed their outer skin; they do a silk pad; they attach to the silk pad; build the cocoon. And all of these different things didn’t go entirely right in outer space. And so, they didn’t successfully fully shed; so, they have, like, bits still attached to them.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: They didn’t fully successfully attach to the little silver pad. And in the end, they ended up with these caterpillars that tried to attach themselves to different corners of their little aquarium – and an aquarium is a euphemism for “the glass you can look into at thing” they were in. It wasn’t like an aquarium you would buy at a fish store; it was fancily developed for outer space.

And, over the course of settling themselves into their cocoons, they ended up – One almost immediately ended up as a free-floating pupa, and the others – all during the “I’m trying to get myself out of this” stage of no longer being in the cocoon and becoming a butterfly – became unattached. And so, you had these wiggling cocoons floating around the inside of this habitat – kind of bouncing into the walls, now and then – and they were just –

They were somehow – and they can’t tell from the videos – and the way they wrote this leads me to believe they are kind of annoyed they couldn’t figure out from the videos. The new butterflies were somehow able to get out of their pupa, despite not being attached to a wall, ceiling or anything else. And then, they had the problem of: How did they get their wings extended? Because here on Earth, gravity helps with that.

So, it took a full 15 minutes of trying to flap their wings around and basically forcing their wings flat, before they could go from crumpled up, “I’ve been in a cocoon for too long”, to actually looking like a full-fledged butterfly trying to fly in zero gravity.

Fraser: But could they fly in zero gravity?

Pamela: I kept trying to find videos of this and there are reports that refer to the butterflies successfully pupating and emerging and flying – but I couldn’t find any videos – and the box looks too small to, like, really, totally get their flap on. So, I’m not sure if they were just kind of fluttering around in a very small, confined area or what.

Fraser: Hmm, interesting.

Now, let’s talk about spiders because there is a creature that, you know – does a very specific activity: Making a web. Gravity must play a part in the orientation of their web.

What happens to spiders in space?

Pamela: Well, it turns out that they’re smarter than you might think – or at least, have the ability to learn.

There were two spiders that got launched, back in 1973, and these were the first two spiders in space. And it was actually part of a student project, up on Skylab. They were named Anita and Arabella. And they’re actually preserved at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. So, if you want to go visit the dead carcasses of spiders that flew on the Skylab, you can go do that.

And when they first launched, they, like, built horrible, horrible webs – horrible webs; didn’t actually finish the webs, just kind of created a tangled, small mess. But like any good spider, they removed their poorly-done work and they tried again because they wanted to eat – and eating’s motivation. And they were eventually able to build pretty good webs.

There was, then, spiders – golden orb spiders – that went up on Columbia, with STS-107 – which, unfortunately, is the spacecraft that disintegrated on re-entry – but they were able to get some results from that mission. There were more spiders that went up on more Space Station missions in 2008.

And then, the most recent spiders were named Gladys and Esmeralda. And they went up on the International Space Station, along with fruit flies; and, in fact, ate the fruit flies. And they essentially followed in the footsteps of Anita and Arabella, and they built really bad webs – removed the really bad webs and then built better webs.

And I love orb spiders. I have taken so many pictures of so many orb spider webs, in so many different places. These are the spider webs that, when you see a spider web in a picture, it’s probably from an orb spider. They are almost always these beautiful, concentric circles. They have what, as far as I’m concerned, are superpowers to go from one side of a doorway to another and just fill doorways with beautiful spider webs waiting to get in your face in the morning – that part is bad.

But in space, they don’t have these beautiful, concentric rings; they basically look kind of drunk. And part of the reason I feel okay saying that is orb spiders are the spiders that scientists like to give drugs to.

Fraser: Right, because you can see what – It’s true. Like, see how a spider on LSD does their web – creativity; that kind of thing, yeah.

Pamela: Right. So, it turns out that a slightly drunk spider and a spider on zero gravity – yeah.

Fraser: Kind of similar.

Pamela: It’s that same – yeah. Just a little more chaotic than one might wish for – but capable of catching fruit flies and thus, keeping the spider alive. So, these are the things that matter.

Fraser: Yeah but those – I mean, those fruit flies are just as hampered, trying to maneuver around a spider’s web in micro-gravity, as well. So, I’m sure their deficits balance each other out, at this point. Right? You’ve got a spider making a terrible web and a fruit fly doing a terrible job of trying to avoid the web.

Pamela: Of trying to fruit “fly”, basically.

Fraser: Yeah, trying to fruit “fly”.

Pamela: And it’s not just orb spiders that have gone into space. There was also a jumping spider by the name of Nefertiti – because, apparently, naming spiders is a thing – was also fed flies while in orbit.

Fraser: When you name a spider, you gain their power – I believe it’s how it works. No, maybe that’s when you eat them – one or the other.

Pamela: You just broke me.

Fraser: Please continue. Tell me more about this jumping spider, Nefertiti.

Pamela: So, it turns out that spiders that jump – and I live in the land of jumpy spiders. Spiders that jump kind of need gravity to know how to land on all eight of their legs simultaneously – and don’t really know how to jump so well without gravity because they will do things like inadvertently back-flop and things like that.

So, pretty much all critters go through the same awkward, “I’m not quite sure how to get around” that humans go through – with the exception of caterpillars because caterpillars don’t care. Caterpillars just adhere to their medium – and they don’t try and jump – and they don’t try and do anything more exciting than crawling along their medium and eating it.

Fraser: They don’t really care. They get along just fine.

Pamela: Yeah, exactly.

Fraser: Alright.

Well, let’s talk about another creature that really gets along well in space and that’s, of course, the water bear.

Pamela: It’s true. This is the tardigrade. And I’m gonna stand up so that those of you, who are watching this live, can see my shirt put on, in honor of this show.

Fraser: For those of you who can’t see, she’s got a tardigrade hugging the outside of an old-timey rocket, going off into space.

I think it’s the point here is that tardigrades don’t need to be on the inside of a rocket; they don’t really care. They can be on the outside of the rocket. It’s all fine to them. They’re so tough!

Pamela: I know, I know. It’s – So, tardigrades – and for those of you who are simply listening, this may help some of you. If you’ve ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender – the anime, not the movie – the Appa, the flying bison, looks like a tardigrade; he just doesn’t have enough legs because actual tardigrades have eight legs. And they don’t die. They just – they’re really hard to kill.

Fraser: Right.

So, what kinds of environments have tardigrades gone through?

Pamela: So, a group of scientists, who wanted to test the full capability of water bears to survive just about anything, put some on the outside of a space experiment – this was on the FOTON-M3 mission – launched them; they stayed on the outside. They were exposed to space for ten days. Then they were brought back to Earth, where they happily lived.

Fraser: So, they put tardigrades in space – vacuum, airless, freezing cold temperatures –

Pamela: And radiation.

Fraser: And radiation. Brought them back to Earth and they were just fine.

Pamela: Tardigrades don’t care – they just don’t care.

Fraser: Now, they weren’t, like, zipping around and going on space walks; they went into some kind of hibernation in this kind of environment.

Pamela: Yes. So, tardigrades – while they prefer to live in nice, warm environments, which is where they get the name “water bear” – they have the ability to essentially expel all moisture from their little, tiny bodies; completely curl into a ball and desiccate themselves, and stay in this not-alive/not-dead desiccated state, just kind of hangin’ out, waiting for moisture. And when that moisture comes, they’ll go on living.

Fraser: Do you think – I mean, tardigrades could then, theoretically, exist out on the surface of Mars?

Pamela: Oh, yeah.

Fraser: But they wouldn’t thrive, though; they would –

Pamela: They need more moisture and –

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: I don’t know if they need less salty water than we have, so far, determined is on Mars. But, I mean, this is why we have to sterilize things and not drop them on Enceladus and Europa – because those worlds have water oceans, as near as we can tell.

Fraser: Yeah. And there’s forms of bacteria that it’s the same story; that you bring back the – there was the – What was it, the Surveyor 10? I forget the name of the – It was on the moon and they – the Apollo astronauts – brought back this camera of this robotic spacecraft and it had bacteria on it. And they were able to restore the bacteria, after spending years on the surface of the moon, and the bacteria was able to get goin’ again. So, even bacteria can survive out in space.

Well, that was really cool. So, I think next week, we’re going to talk about some more animals. We’ll talk about, maybe, some C. elegans, some worms –

Pamela: And it’s all about the lab results. So, butterflies – chill in space; totally cool; live fast; build happy, little butterflies. Fruit flies – immunology problems.

Fraser: Right. Alright. Awesome. Well, we’ll talk to you next week.

Pamela: Sounds great.

Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus.

We record the show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific, 4:30 p.m. Eastern or 2030 GMT. If you missed the live event, you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org or our YouTube page. To subscribe to the show, point your podcatching software at astronomycast.com/podcast.xml, or subscribe directly from iTunes. Our music is provided by Travis Serl and the show was edited by Chad Weber.

This episode of Astronomy Cast was made possible thanks to donations from people like you. Please give by going to astronomycast.org/donate.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 29 minutes

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