Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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11-Nov-2009

Contact: Chip Taylor
chip@ku.edu
785-864-4850
University of Kansas

University of Kansas helps monarch butterflies head into space

When the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off Nov. 16, three monarch caterpillars from the University of Kansas will be on board for the trip to the International Space Station.



Chip Taylor of the University of Kansas discusses the plan to send monarch butterflies aboard the space shuttle.

LAWRENCE When the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off Nov. 16, three monarch caterpillars from the University of Kansas will be on board for the trip to the International Space Station.

The trio will be the first of their species in space.

Monarch Watch a KU-based network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to study of the monarch butterfly is providing the caterpillars to NASA, along with a special artificial diet. If all goes according to plan, the insects will eat, grow and go through metamorphosis to emerge as adult butterflies in 17 days while in low Earth orbit.

"We're going to try to learn as much as we can about this insect and how it functions in space," said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "This is an insect that seems to use gravity a lot. It has orientation features that indicate that gravity is very important for it. But, how will they function in an environment where it is difficult to tell up from down?"

As the caterpillars develop, Taylor said, scientists and students will look at five points in the monarch's transformation into butterflies that could be made much trickier in a low-gravity environment.

  • Can the caterpillars cling to the surface of their space habitat or might they float?
  • Can they find a suitable place to make a chrysalis?
  • Will they be able to split their skin when they make the chrysalis?
  • Can they hook into the silk pad that supports the chrysalis?
  • Can they emerge as adult butterflies and correctly expand their wings?

Steve Hawley, KU professor of physics and astronomy and veteran of five space shuttle missions as a former NASA astronaut, explained the value of determining how different organisms fare in space.

"The more we learn about how physiology works in space whether it's human physiology or insect physiology or plant physiology the more we'll be able to use that information on the ground to understand fundamentally how biological systems work," Hawley said. "It's exciting that KU is involved in the International Space Station and human spaceflight."

Monarch Watch is participating in the butterfly experiment at the invitation of BioServe Space Technologies, a center within the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"BioServe approached us last April and said, 'We're trying to get monarchs in space,' " Taylor recalled. "I said, 'Really? Well, that's wonderful. Tell me about what you're trying to do.' And they asked, 'Are you guys doing anything with an artificial diet?' And I said, 'You called at the right time, because we're making good progress with an artificial diet.' "

"Chip has been a huge help we wouldn't have been able to do this without his input," said Stefanie Countryman, business development manager with BioServe Space Technologies. "In the course of searching for the right artificial diet, we came across Monarch Watch. Chip was very excited to help out. We already had the habitat and some stringent requirements for the butterflies, but he's been able to advise us and give us whatever information we've needed to have these butterflies survive."

The caterpillars have been introduced to the artificial diet at Monarch Watch on KU's west campus in Lawrence and will be sent to Florida shortly before launch to be placed inside the "Micro-Gravity Butterfly Habitat" developed by BioServe.

At the same time, Monarch Watch will ship similar collections of butterfly caterpillars and artificial diets to hundreds of elementary schools around the country so students can track development of the monarchs in space and compare their growth to monarchs in the classroom.

"The students are going to get a good look at what normal larvae do, and that should help them understand what's going on in the space capsule as well," Taylor said. "They're going to be placing caterpillars in their capsules at the same time that the capsules are loaded up for the space shuttle."

When the shuttle blasts off, Taylor will be at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A to watch as his butterflies soar toward the space station. Monarch Watch staff members Jim Lovett and Ann Ryan will accompany him to Florida.

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The public can follow the development of the KU butterflies in space via photos and video that regularly will be posted online at www.monarchwatch.org.