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Ants in Space

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The live Ants in Space investigation was conducted in January 2014 on the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment involves eight habitats, each containing approximately 100 pavement ants, and examines how ants work together to search a new space.

All videos, images and other resources related to the Ants in Space mission are linked below and archived in the BioEd Online video library, so your students can follow the ISS experiments, and conduct their own ground-based ant investigations at any time.

Capture your own ants, build inexpensive ant habitats and learn about ant communication and exploratory behaviors. Use the ISS video of “space ants” and your own data to duplicate the ISS experiments on Earth, or come up with your own unique investigations.

Educational materials for Ants in Space were developed by the Center for Educational Outreach, Baylor College of Medicine, in collaboration with BioServe Space Technologies (University of Colorado), Stanford University, and the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Investigation Information: Click here

This experiment examines how ants work together to search a new space. An ant colony must continually monitor its environment to find food, water and nest sites, and to detect threats such as encroachment by ants from another colony. Because ant colonies work without central control, monitoring, foraging and defense must be done collectively. The colony’s goal is to have ants everywhere, and at all times, so that if something happens, or if food becomes available, a member of the colony will be there to find it and alert the nest. Of course, no colony can do this perfectly. This experiment seeks to answer questions about how colonies adjust their searching strategies in changing conditions.

The investigation examines the search patterns of individual Tetramorium caespitum (pavement) ants at two different population densities, and within the microgravity environment of the ISS and under normal Earth gravity. Pavement ants are common throughout much of the northern and central United States, and also are found in Europe and many other parts of the world.

The following key questions will be investigated.

  • When a group of ants is searching a new space, does the shape of an ant’s path depend on the number of ants per unit area?
  • Are ants’ searching behaviors and patterns different in a microgravity environment than in Earth’s normal gravity?

Eight habitats, each containing approximately 100 ants, were sent to the ISS on January 7, 2014. The Ants in Space flight habitat is a shallow rectangular box with a clear top through which to view the ants. The box is just a few millimeters deep, but provides ample room for ants to move about freely. For ease of handling, the habitats were mounted on plates in sets of four (total of two plates, each with four habitats). Matching habitats containing similar numbers of ants were set up on Earth for observation as controls. During transport to the ISS, the ants were kept in the small “nest” areas of each habitat. The nests contained plaster of Paris infused with a nutrient solution to provide food and water.

Ant habitats designed for the ISS

The ant habitats were loaded and secured on the ISS, and the experiments were conducted on two different days. Each day, four habitats were set up in front of an HD video camera. The astronaut conducting the experiment lowered the barrier on each habitat between the nest area and Forage Area 1 (approximately one-half of the total area of the habitat). This allowed the ants to explore Forage Area 1, and their movements were recorded on video for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, the astronaut lowered the barrier to Forage Area 2, allowing ants to explore the entire habitat. The astronaut then set the video camera to record ant movements in this “condition” for approximately 30 more minutes.

Video of the ants was transmitted back to NASA on Earth, and is available here on BioEd Online (www.bioedonline.org). Investigators are using a software program specifically designed to track the movement patterns and interaction rates of the “space” ants. When available, their findings will be provided here, enabling students and other investigators to make direct comparisons of the flight ants with their own Earth-based ants living in habitats they constructed. Instructions for building ant habitats with similar dimensions to those used on the ISS can be found here.

Experiment results could provide insights into how ants regulate their social interactions under normal (Earth) gravity conditions, and whether these interactions are dependent on gravity. Also, very little is known about how ants control or modify path shape, and the investigation could provide clues about conditions under which ants forage in a random pattern or on a straighter path. Finally, the results could shed light on how ants coordinate their behaviors. It even may have applications for other systems that rely on distributed algorithms, such as robots deployed for search and rescue operations.

For more information on expandable search networks, such as those used by ants, see Dr. Deborah Gordon’s website at Stanford University (http://www.stanford.edu/~dmgordon).

Teaching Materials

Thumbnail Image for Expandable Search Networks Reading

Expandable Search Networks

Dr. Deborah Gordon explains how ants adjust their search strategies.

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Classroom Slides

Slide set containing information and images from the Ants in Space Teacher's Guide.

Experiment Videos

NASA video of ant habitats 1-8 from the Ants in Space experiment aboard the International Space Station can be found below. The experiments were conducted on January 13, 2014.

The Ants in Space videos consist of two sets of data, one from the ISS-based experiments and one from the Earth-based comparison investigations.

Eight duplicate habitats on the International Space Station contained approximately 80 ants each. A similar set of ground-based habitats were set up and observed as a comparison. In both environments (microgravity aboard ISS and regular gravity on Earth), partitions in the habitats were opened at various times to enlarge the ants’ exploration areas. Each exploration period was approximately 25 minutes.

Videos marked with the term "Ground HAB" show the comparison habitats, in which the ants experienced normal gravity. Videos marked "HAB" are of habitats on the Space Station, in which the ants experienced microgravity.

Thumbnail Image for Source Video: ISS Ant Habitats 1-8 Video Gallery

Source Video: ISS Ant Habitats 1-8

Complete and unedited source video as it was sent by NASA of all of the Ants in Space Habitats.

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ISS Ant Habitats

NASA video of ant habitats 1-8 from the Ants in Space experiment aboard the ISS.

Thumbnail Image for Ground Control Ant Habitats Video Gallery

Ground Control Ant Habitats

Earth-based comparison investigations of 5 ant habitats.

Experiment Videos on VimeoExternal Link

Experiment Videos on Vimeo

The entire collection of Ants in Space experiment videos are also available to view and download from Vimeo.

Photos and Slides

Ants in Space ISS PhotosPhotos

Ants in Space ISS Photos

Photos of the Ants in Space experiment taken aboard the ISS. Photos courtesy of NASA and BioServe Space Technologies.

Orbital Sciences Launch PhotosPhotos

Orbital Sciences Launch Photos

For photos of the launch, check out the Orbital Sciences Flickr site.

Supplemental Classroom Guides

Thumbnail Image for Scientific Image Processing Supplemental

Scientific Image Processing

Students learn how to obtain and use ImageJ image processing software (free) to enhance subtle details in photos of an organism or experiment sample.

Thumbnail Image for Designing Your Investigation Supplemental

Designing Your Investigation

Details key steps for conducting a scientific investigation (i.e., begin with a question, design a procedure to collect the required data, etc.).

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Naturalist Journals

Covers the uses and benefits of naturalist journals, which scientists have employed for centuries to organize data into a meaningful form through sketches, pictures, and written observations.

Related Content

Thumbnail Image for Ants in Space Update News Article

Ants in Space Update

The ant-stronauts have launched! The Cygnus spacecraft will deliver them to the ISS Sunday, and the Ants in Space investigation is scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. ET, Monday, January 13.

Expedition 38 (Mission Page)External Link

Expedition 38 (Mission Page)

Learn about the Expedition 38 crew members who conducted the Ants in Space experiments aboard the International Space Station.

TED Talk: The emergent genius of ant coloniesExternal Link

TED Talk: The emergent genius of ant colonies

With a dusty backhoe, a handful of Japanese paint markers and a few students in tow, Deborah Gordon digs up ant colonies in the Arizona desert to understand their complex social system.

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Funded by the following grant(s)

Center for the Advancement of Science in Space

This work was funded by grant number GA-2013-108 from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc., (CASIS) through NASA cooperative agreement number NNH11CD70A.