To send spiders into space seems like a good idea (because science), but arachnids apparently have their own ideas about life in space.
NASA researchers first sent spiders into space in the 1970s. So an arachnid-based experiment to raise the scientific awareness of high school students in 2008 seemed logical. That was before a spider made its way out of its pen.
But as so often happens, what could have been simply dismissed as a mistake grew into a series of experiments about spiders in space that yielded unexpected scientific insights.
Their experiment seemed simple enough – a pair of spiders would live aboard the International Space Station, and researchers would study how they adapted to life in microgravity.
Unlike the spiders, the mice seemed to enjoy space once they got used to it. Video credit: Original footage from NASA / Editing and formatting by The Cosmic Companion.
In a separate experiment, mice brought to the ISS got used to the conditions in space after a few days and soon even invented their own game. Spiders are very different from mice, and the arachnids’ reaction was not playful.
Earth-based spiders build asymmetrical webs with the center closer to the top than the middle. The eight-legged hunters then tend to stay on the upper half of their webs, head down. In this way, gravity assists the spider as it races toward its prey caught in the web.
By contrast, in space, the spiders no longer have gravity to guide them.
The Shawshank web solution
A pair of arachnids with the main spider, a Metepeira labyrinthea, and a backup spider, a Larinioides patagiatus, were taken to the International Space Station (ISS).
The surrogate spider, perhaps unhappy with its co-star status, broke out of captivity and invaded the experiment’s main chamber. Unable to open the chamber for safety reasons, the astronauts were unable to separate the two spiders in space. Soon, the webs built by the spiders grew tangled as the two arachnids got in each other’s way.
The fruit flies, which were bred in space as food for the spiders, also reacted to the unfamiliar conditions and multiplied at an unexpected rate. Eventually, the larvae crawled out of their brood container and covered the bottom of the enclosure. When the larvae moved into the experimental chamber with the already-nervous pair of spiders, they soon covered the chamber’s window, preventing the astronauts from seeing the spiders or their webs.