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Spiders in space are so unhappy they can’t even build decent webs


Sending spiders to space seems like a good idea (because, science), but arachnids apparently have their own notions about living in space.

NASA researchers first sent spiders to space in the 1970’s, so an arachnid-based experiment to raise science awareness among high school students in 2008 seemed logical. That was before one spider muscled his way out of his pen.

But, as is so often the case, what could have been simply written off as a mistake grew into a series of experiments on spiders in space, yielding unexpected science.

Someone needs to tell spiders about the scientific method…

The experiment seemed simple enough — a pair of spiders would be allowed to live aboard the International Space Station, and researchers would look at how they adjusted to life in the microgravity environment.

Unlike spiders, mice seem to enjoy space, once they got used to it. Video credit: Original footage from NASA / Editing and formatting by The Cosmic Companion

In a separate experiment, mice launched to the ISS became acclimated to conditions in space after a few days, and soon even invented their own game. Spiders are far different than mice, and the reaction of the arachnids was not playful.

Spiders on Earth build asymmetric webs, with their centers closer to the top edge than the middle. The eight-legged hunters then tend to stay on the top half of their webs, head pointed downward. This way, gravity assists the spider as it races toward its prey, entangled in the web.

In space, however, spiders were left without gravity to guide them.

The Shawshank Webdemption

A pair of arachnauts including the main subject, a Metepeira labyrinthea, and a backup spider, a Larinioides patagiatus, were launched to the International Space Station (ISS).

The backup spider, perhaps unhappy with co-star status, broke out of confinement, entering the main chamber of the experiment. Astronauts, unable to open the chamber due to safety reasons, weren’t able to separate the pair of spiders in space. Before long, webs built by the spiders grew haphazard, as the two arachnauts got in each other’s way.

Fruit flies grown as food for the spiders in space also reacted to their unusual conditions, reproducing at an unexpected rate. Eventually, larvae overran, and crawled out of their breeding container, covering the floor of the case. Moving into the experimental chamber with the pair of already-annoyed spiders, larvae soon covered the window of the chamber, preventing astronauts from seeing the spiders or their webs.

The experiment probably just needed more spiders

A second experiment in 2011, created to follow up on the 2008 study, was designed to learn from the 2008 mishaps.