As a species, we've had the capability of space travel for quite some time. As such, we’ve sent more than just people up there - we've sent all sorts of weird stuff, especially animals. There have been a ton of animals sent into space: monkeys, dogs, rats, newts, fish, and more. NASA also sent Nephila clavipes - golden orb weaver spiders - into space. And everyone involved, from astronauts to students, called them different things: arachnidnauts, spidernauts, and even astro-nids.
What’s the point, you might ask? Scientists wanted to see what happens to spiders and their ability to spin webs while in microgravity. We humans are infinitely curious about everything, and researchers love to poke and prod to gauge reactions and gain a better understanding of ourselves and our vast universe. In both November 2008 and May 2011, the spiders launched into space aboard the Endeavor, and scientists back on Earth learned quite a few interesting things from their eight-legged astronauts.
The Nephila clavipes themselves seemed to have their own little science experiment; their first webs were chaotic and three-dimensional, as the spiders were not used to the lack of gravity. Within a few days of being in space, however, they adapted to their weightlessness, and made their webs with some normalcy.
Though they typically spin asymmetric webs - where the largest portion of the web is located in one direction - in microgravity they spun symmetric webs.
For the most part, orb weaver spiders face downwards when waiting for prey in their webs, because gravity makes them much faster when they catch a fly below them. Without gravity, though, attacking prey in any direction became a breeze.
Of course, attacking downwards also became downright scary. Watch as Thelma nabs her prey in the blink of an eye.
To feed the spiders, NASA also brought Drosophila melanogaster - common fruit flies - on the mission. These flies weren't just food for the arachnidnauts - the scientists also wanted to see how microgravity would affect the flies' flight patterns. One can only imagine them flying around in a rather disoriented manner.
Classrooms all over were asked to keep Nephila clavipes and observe the differences between the ones in space and those at home, and to also act as the "control" portion of the experiment (you can check out their lesson plans at BioEd Online).
The orb weaver is an arachnid that adjusts its web daily to maximize its ability to catch prey, and the smartest minds on Earth said: hey, take a super close look! These kids got to learn all sorts of cool natural science from the astronauts themselves, and also got to watch their killer pets devour dozens of insects at the same time.