Arachnauts: NASA Sends Spiders to Space for Experimentation – Here’s What They Found

Cross Spider

Humans have taken spiders into space more than once to study the importance of gravity to their web-building. What originally began as a somewhat unsuccessful PR experiment for high school students has yielded the surprising insight that light plays a larger role in arachnid orientation than previously thought.

The spider experiment by the US space agency NASA is a lesson in the frustrating failures and happy accidents that sometimes lead to unexpected research findings. The question was relatively simple: on Earth, spiders build asymmetrical webs with the center displaced towards the upper edge. When resting, spiders sit with their head downwards because they can move towards freshly caught prey faster in the direction of gravity.

But what do arachnids do in zero gravity? In 2008, NASA wanted to inspire middle schools in the US with this experiment. But even though the question was simple, the planning and execution of the experiment in space was extremely challenging. This led to a number of mishaps.

Two specimens from different spider species flew to the International Space Station (ISS) as “arachnauts,” one (Metepeira labyrinthea) as the lead and the other (Larinioides patagiatus) as a reserve in case the first didn’t survive.

Spider in Space

A specimen of the spider species Trichonephila clavipes on board the international space station ISS. Credit: BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado Boulder

The reserve spider escaped

The back-up spider managed to break out of its storage chamber and into the main chamber. The chamber couldn’t be opened for safety reasons, so the extra spider could not be recaptured. The two spiders spun somewhat muddled webs, getting in each other’s way.

And if that were not enough, the flies included as food reproduced more quickly than expected. Over time, their larvae crawled out of the breeding container on the floor of the case into the experimental chamber, and after two weeks covered large parts of the front window. After a month, the spiders could no longer be seen behind all the fly larvae.

This failure long nagged at Paula Cushing of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, who participated in the planning of the spider experiment. When the opportunity for a similar experiment on board the ISS cropped up again in 2011, the researcher got Dr. Samuel Zschokke of the University of Basel involved to prepare and analyze the new attempt. This time, the experiment started with four spiders of the same species (Trichonephila clavipes): two flew to the ISS in separate habitats, two stayed on Earth in separate habitats and were kept and observed under identical conditions as their fellows traveling in space – except that they were exposed to terrestrial gravity.

The females were males

The plan was originally to use four females. But another mishap occurred: the spiders had to be chosen for the experiment as juveniles and it is extremely difficult to determine the sex of juvenile animals. In the course of the experiment, two of the spiders turned out to be males, which differ markedly in body structure and size from females of this species when fully grown. But finally, there was a stroke of luck – one of the males was on board the space station, the other on Earth.

The arachnids spun their webs, dismantled them, and spun new ones. Three cameras in each case took pictures every five minutes. Zschokke, Cushing and Stefanie Countryman of the University of Colorado’s BioServe Space Technologies that oversaw the design and launch of the space flight certified habitats containing the spiders and fruit fly larvae and camera system to the International Space Station analyzed the symmetry of 100 spider webs and the orientation of the spider in the web using about 14,500 images.

It turned out that the webs built in zero gravity were indeed more symmetrical than those spun on Earth. Their center was closer to the middle and the spiders did not always keep their heads downwards. However, the researchers noticed that it made a difference whether the spiders built their webs in lamplight or in the dark. Webs built on the ISS in lamplight were similarly asymmetrical as the terrestrial webs.

Light as a back-up system

“We wouldn’t have guessed that light would play a role in orienting the spiders in space,” says Zschokke, who analyzed the spider experiment and published the results with his colleagues in the journal Science of Nature. “We were very fortunate that the lamps were attached at the top of the chamber and not on various sides. Otherwise, we would not have been able to discover the effect of light on the symmetry of webs in zero gravity.”

Analysis of the pictures also showed that the spiders rested in arbitrary orientations in their webs when the lights were turned off, but oriented themselves away – i.e. downwards – when the lights were on. It seems spiders use light as an additional orientation aid when gravity is absent. Since spiders also build their webs in the dark and can catch prey without light, it had previously been assumed that light plays no role in their orientation.

“That spiders have a back-up system for orientation like this seems surprising, since they have never been exposed to an environment without gravity in the course of their evolution,” says Zschokke. On the other hand, he says, a spider’s sense of position could become confused while it is building its web. The organ responsible for this sense registers the relative position of the front part of the body to the back. During construction of the web, the two body parts are in constant motion, so an additional orientation aid based on the direction of the light is particularly useful.

Reference: “Spiders in space—orb-web-related behaviour in zero gravity” by Samuel Zschokke, Stefanie Countryman and Paula E. Cushing, 3 December 2020, Science of Nature.
DOI: 10.1007/s00114-020-01708-8

71 Comments on "Arachnauts: NASA Sends Spiders to Space for Experimentation – Here’s What They Found"

  1. Yoganandhan Moodley | December 27, 2020 at 2:31 am | Reply

    No mention of the segments of the web being EG spider .the web segments of the energy fields of and in the web.
    EG a diamond has four sides in a diagonal.you get v x

    Fathom
    The space. The dot. The line .the directional linearity.
    This is the untouched knowledge of and tuitive Intel.
    The energy from principles

  2. What was the point of getting all this info? Before we stress any living creature, be it human or insect, we need to have a profound need for the data we hope to attain. This article didn’t give me that insight-“to study the importance of gravity to their web-building”, just didn’t cut it for me. Just because we can experiment doesn’t mean we always should.

  3. We know nothing.

  4. Preston C Jennings | December 27, 2020 at 6:58 am | Reply

    Was light truly a ‘back-up’ to gravity in space or were the spiders simply orienting themselves in a direction they anticipate goiod will travel?

  5. It’s just messing with gene expression of the spiders extended phenotype. The experiment essentially coaxed out all the different ways the genes use to control the spider. All it really tells us is that we too are probably controlled in various ways based on gravity and direction of light and long term space habitation will need to mimic Earth more or we will start building our webs upside down. There’s no way around it, we will need spin gravity or constant thrust gravity for long term space flight.

  6. Darrell Kitchen | December 27, 2020 at 7:24 am | Reply

    Even though the spider experiment didn’t result in some great discovery, doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It could have had a profound finding and still might.

  7. How many Trillions of pennies did we waste along with our children’s brains on this for absolutely nothing, absolute nonsense!

  8. Do spiders have eyelids? Couldn’t they just be hiding thier faces from the light so they can sleep better?

  9. I’m sorry but the articles have become so left or opinionated its pathetic and the saddest thing of all is what information the editors choose to use then drag it out with useless information showing lack of experience and taste. Lately I’ve been disappointed and frustrated that once again I’ve wasted time in my day reading nonsense and that the only informitable information was the headline we want facts and useful information all in all the articles are dragged out and boring to a point where I stop reading.

  10. Roberto Antolini | December 27, 2020 at 8:53 am | Reply

    This is what i am paying taxes for?
    Instead of trying to at least put the money to better use as in colonizing mars etc. No money is spent on spiders in launching them to space? U KIDDING ME?

    • spiders are amazing creatures, probably the most developed, resistent, most strong and most space prepared in earth to test it out since they come from jurrasic age and had so much time to develope. Understanding their senses could lead into new tech discoveries such as radars and new forces unseen by us.

  11. If you have ever watched a spider build a web…and harvest its food.
    You be quite amazed..

    Kenman

  12. Sebastien Tides | December 27, 2020 at 9:37 am | Reply

    All knowledge is valuable and the value of some knowledges may not be evident to all.
    As a humorous side reference:

    Know Your Foe: Would You Like to Know More?
    CALL YOUR LOCAL RECRUITER TODAY!

  13. The above comments seem to be worried about taxes. I would implore those concerned about such things, to look up the American federal budget for the past few years. Look at defence compared to the sciences (like the entirety of NASA). Then look up how much income was lost by continuing to lower and eliminate taxes on the extremely wealthy corporations and people.

    A good majority of science and progress is learned by mistake. Experiments like the one describing in the article actually gave interesting results that might build important future research and decisions. What benefit do we receive for giving the rich more free money (effectively socialism for the wealthy) and pushing us further into debt by continuing to build a war machine for an enemy that doesn’t exist?

    I hope those commenting about their taxes, are equally contacting their respective senators about this vastly larger wastes of money.

  14. Is it possible they orient themselves of of memory where the sunlight is coming from so if change light to come from bottom they will orient themselves in the opposite direction since they may be assuming the light is the sunlight?

    • In space there is no top or bottom. The light becomes the top(to the spider). So if you move the light the spider will most likely treat the new location as the top.

      • I would be interested to learn what if anything were to happen if the light was moved. Someone committed that the spiders responded to memory (light on Earth), but it doesn’t really explain the type of webbing/symmetric. Not to provide an opinion one way or the other, it left me with the question, “What’s next, for the spiders and science?”

        • well vizual memory is a fact, lack of it there is no gravity memory point, so the webs are more symetrical to resist equally to all forces on the lack of perception of it

  15. These abilities showed by spiders may help us understand more about gravity and how it works.black holes planets and sun all operate under gravity by this experiment we can use not only spiders but some organisms for understanding the concept of gravity in relation to light we can use all this organisms ability and behavior to other planets relative to ours

  16. Are they gonna take a load of moths and flies so it can eat????

  17. We need satan back in schools and elvis back in our room vs. world ain’t been right since elvis and the Duke died.

  18. Bitch bitch bitch. Moan moan moan. God I’d hate to wake up next to most of you every morning. What a waste of energy! Smile people. At least you’re alive. Geez.

  19. Article was a bit useful. The webs were built oddly, so like us, if we’re in deep space, there’s no up, down, left, right, gravity, or light. We’d probably, like the spiders, start building things that dont make any sense on earth but make perfect sense out there. Like spheres or cubes as ships and components of various confusing shapes. It made sense to the spiders, but given more decades out there, they’d evolve eventually and adapt but if you bring them back to earth, they’d be confused or might give up and die having to adapt all over again.

  20. This article is a perfect example of how flawed science can be. There are a lot of conclusions made at different points based on very little data and poor observations. No wonder there are so many myths and bad facts out there that inevitably get proven wrong. It’s because the research was never comprehensively performed in the first place.

  21. Just walk out into your back yard in the summer. Leave a steady light on every night. A “smart” (opportunistic?” garden spider will set up shop in the same lighted spot every night. Why did we need to send them to space to figure this out? Click bait?

  22. Looks like a spider avoiding glare. Also it is a common hunting technique to have the light at your back. Hunting birds use this to their advantage. So it seems more of a practical choice to face away from the light. Wherever it comes from.

  23. How does this confirm whether hot tubs
    relieve stress?

  24. It’s funny how much you spend on these idiotic experiments when thousands of people are struggling to just find food. Be human guys. Even if the spiders did spin webs in a spacecraft won’t we just clean it up 😂

  25. Have been observing certain types of spiders do change the angle of their web be a few degrees each day they rebuild it. I suspect the influency of moon light and web visibility to potential prey…

  26. Happy Christmas | December 28, 2020 at 2:41 am | Reply

    Starship troopers – the beginning … we will send them to mars and they will return evolved to save their kind from human experiments…

  27. SirLick A. Lot | December 28, 2020 at 3:36 am | Reply

    This article reminds me of Trumps election victory being high jacked and stolen by the liberal satanic worshipping far left.

  28. Wonderful to see experiments conducted in space. But I’ve always wondered how humans will manage procreation (or recreational) sex in the absence of gravity. Will it make it easier to birth the future descendants of earth; or Will it add an additional “gravity” to our cult-driven and awkward taboo?
    Spiders in space sounds great; but sex in space has an eart-shattering sound to it.

  29. Oh let’s stick spiders in space and see if their genetics change or they mutate. Who had killer spiders from space on their 2021 armageddon bingo?!

    I get the curious and scientific exploration, but let’s just pump the breaks for a hot second…

    … Space force isn’t yet fully established to handle these extraterrestrial monsters! Until we can establish the space force special force’s (Guardians of the Galactic), let’s just research COVID or tooth decay; not alien life we unintentionally create…

  30. Put your phones tablets whatever and throw them in the trash…shame on you all. Go outside and volunteer or something there’s a pandemic happening. People are starving, dying, your energy could be better spent..I can’t get up and go out side but I bet u all can. So go on, go help your fellow citizens that need real help.

    • Some of us need our phones and tablets to distract us, but also choose not to go to parks or open spaces because we wish to be home and are exhausted work.

      Pssst, some of us might be healthcare workers (hospice nurse in this case)

      🤷🏻‍♂️

  31. F Tonia Romano | December 28, 2020 at 4:54 am | Reply

    Money is not infinite. Why not find a CURE for Covid instead of a vaccination which a person like me cannot take because? I am immunocompromised

  32. Scott Belcastro | December 28, 2020 at 5:40 am | Reply

    Was this also included in the stimulus package?

  33. I want to see a fly flying in zero grav,haha.would it have any control on its manoeuvres? If Wings don’t propel in space.would it just give up & crawl about instead? Yeah, the spider experiment is a cool idea,mabey we expect to much.ha.

  34. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural fibers in existence (to our knowledge, and mine). Many of today’s modern fibers and fabrics, like Kevlar are seeking to replicate and hybridize this amazing strength of the everyday spiders’ webs.

    Just because we do not yet find tremendous value in these early experiments (or others), does not mean that they will not be stepping stones to a more valuable finding in the future.

    To complain about tax dollars…it is absurd to think that an entire expedition was created, funded, and executed only for spider web research. It was surely “piggy-backed” along with an existing excursion.

    Much of science is mundane, straightforward work, and would not be possible without researching and following in the footsteps of predecessors. These people ARE the predecessors.

    Lastly, we are living in the most technically advanced society in the history of Earth. That means ALL of us. WE are making history…today. “Living is a chance of a lifetime “. Go do or create something that will outlive you. Maybe spider silk is not “your thing”. Find “your thing” and share it with the world.

    Thank you.

  35. For those upset about the time and money not being used to fight Covid please note the dates of the events listed as 2008 & 2011. These experiments are long past. As for people saying its a waste of money that could feed starving people etc. Space research has created technologies we use commonly in everyday life. As for the hungry we harvest enough food to feed everyone its just not managed well or used to benefit tjose in need. Yes we can throw more money at the problem which will create fatter pockets for some but little food for the ones in need. At least in science research we create things we all can use.

  36. Andrew Hensley | December 28, 2020 at 9:57 am | Reply

    Nasa or nakash you’re a liar

  37. Covid? Pretty sure, had you all noticed, this article & these experiments happened a decade before this particular round of pandemic flu, COVID 19.
    I think spiders use light for their website & orientation 1). To attract prey, 2) put light at their back, thereby blinding said prey, 3) spider’s gotta get some shut eye. Light in your face make sleep difficult!

  38. Podría ser que la araña se coloque del lado contrario a la posición de la luz por que la mayoría de sus presas irían hacia ella y caerían de ése lado así la araña puede llegar mas rapido hasta el lugar de impacto.
    La úsan para cegar a la presa..en la oscuridad úsan ótra tactica las telas son en lugares estratégicos como corrientes de aires ..lugares abierto en la posición que mas les convenga…son depredadores deben evaluar de alguna forma a sus presas..

  39. Fascinating!

  40. Ive read that spiders extremities enlarge and inflat if they are in an non oxygenated environmentxausing them to triple in size. This could potentially be a disaster! Why couldn’t they do a danm lady bug or something!

  41. Michael Thomas | December 28, 2020 at 8:30 pm | Reply

    Each experiment that goes to space is weighted. What was the deciding factor for this particular experiment? I must conclude in the absence of other info that our aerospace engineers are looking into structures that are very similar to those produced by arachnids, and are there for looking for mitigating factors not shared in the information released…

  42. looks like the spider is having problems walking and is confused, its legs look unsure of walking and no confidence but it still completes the web,it also has in doing so, definitely>gravity instability ,moving fast means weightlessness as its using to much strength and overstepping by far as we watch, poor spider. it show the spider is in its process of food preparation with only trouble of gravity,nothing new here at all.

  43. It was not zero gravity, about 90% earth gravity with free fall, vs 1 earth gravity. If there was no gravity, they would not be in orbit.

  44. Spiders build their web according to the light because they assume they will catch more food near a source or light at night. Because all the bugs fly to lights at night. Thus giving them more of a chance of catching more food.

  45. assume they will catch near a source or light at nihgt.

  46. George E Dukes | March 25, 2021 at 5:49 pm | Reply

    It is disappointing to see how many people have negative remarks about topics they know little or nothing about.

  47. All I can think if when I read this is Spiderman flying through the air needing to be able to find his center of gravity and needing light to be able to see, but also having spider senses to flip about without being able to see. Point is I don’t think we really needed to spend who knows how much money studying this when you can read a comic book or watch a Spiderman movie And get the concept for a few dollars. I suppose if you had to know and needed to prove it with science, but what is the real world application to something like this? The amount of money that probably went into this very elementary science experiment is sadly way more than anyone probably thinks. Did they think Spiders were blind and wouldn’t need light? Was the term spider senses never talked about between a bunch of nerds? Just because you Can doesn’t mean you should.

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