While most of humanity will remain stuck on the this pale blue dot in the ocean of space some Monarch caterpillars are now in residence onboard the International Space Station courtesy of the NASA and the recent launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The three caterpillars are part of a educational outreach program contracted to BioServe Space Technology in conjunction with Monarch Watch, a research organization based in the University of Kansas in Lawrence dedicated to the study and preservation of Monarch butterflies. The caterpillars will remain on the ISS throughout lifecycle to become hopefully mature Monarch butterflies to study the effect microgravity has upon their development and physiology.
Dr. Chip Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, delivered the three caterpillars to NASA Kennedy Space Center to be launched on Atlantis the previous week. Dr. Taylor is the director of Monarch Watch and had originally planned on having only 20 elementary schools involved in the study. However, the response from to the program was so overwhelming, that Monarch Watch ended up shipping Monarch caterpillars and kits to over 425 schools ranging from elementary to high schools. Each school will be responsible for feeding and caring for their caterpillar while having students observe and take notes on Monarchs' development. At the same time, the students will also be able to view video and photos of the same experiment on the ISS to compare their results.
Key questions concerning the Monarch caterpillars include whether they will be able to survive the launch, crawl along a surface to a substrate or to locate a site for chrysalis and pupation, how will microgravity affect metamorphasis? The central question in this study is what kind of role gravity plays in the development of biological organism and is gravity essential to life? The implications of the study could range far beyond insect development to how humans will be able to live or establish colonies in space in the future.
For some further reading:
Caterpillars’ guide to the galaxy The Kansan