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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 18:42 EDT

‘Butterflynauts’ Emerge On Space Station

December 2, 2009

As of Dec. 1, four Painted Lady butterflies are living aboard the International Space Station.

These “butterflynauts” are part of an educational experiment that was launched Nov. 16 on space shuttle Atlantis and transferred to the space station. Students of all ages have been following the tiny crew’s development from larvae to butterflies.

“All four larvae formed chrysalises and two emerged as butterflies on Nov. 30. Two more butterflies emerged overnight,” said Stefanie Countryman, BioServe Space Technologies payload mission manager. The experiment is flying in BioServe’s Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, a suitcase-sized payload used to conduct space experiments.

Ground-based comparisons

In classrooms across the United States, students have set up habitats and are replicating the space experiment. Their objective is to compare the growth and behavior of ground-based butterfly larvae and adult butterflies with those living in the microgravity environment of space.

BioServe is releasing video of the space butterflies as it becomes available. The first video from Nov. 30 shows only one of the butterflies. Video will be posted to YouTube and BioEd Online. Photos of the butterflies are also available on BioEd Online.

“The larvae didn’t seem to have problems navigating and feeding in the space environment. Now, the opportunities to investigate microgravity’s effect on adult butterfly behavior, wing development and flight are beginning,” said Dr. Nancy Moreno, professor of allied health sciences and senior associate director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Educational Outreach.

Free teacher’s guide available

The ground-based portion of this activity is sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and involves the cooperative effort of several science and education organizations. Project partners include BioServe Space Technologies of University of Colorado at Boulder, BCM, Orion’s Quest, The Butterfly Pavilion, Challenger Learning Center of Colorado and NASA. Additional support is provided by the Houston Endowment Inc., and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

A free Butterflies in Space teacher’s guide can be downloaded from BioEd Online. The guide provides information on ordering larvae, along with simple instructions for creating a low-cost habitat and caring for the larvae and butterflies. The guide provides examples of scientific investigations so that students can design and carry out their own explorations.

“The photos and video are being archived, so classrooms can participate in the experiment at any time and compare their classroom larvae with photos of space larvae at the same developmental stage,” Moreno said.

Through the educational activity, students learn the skill of scientific observation by making detailed sketches of the larvae as they develop. The open-ended experiment also teaches students to ask scientific questions, observe details and differences, and use evidence to support their own conclusions.

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