Monarchs in Space Project
When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A, on November 16, 2009, three monarch caterpillars from Monarch Watch, were on board headed to the International Space Station (ISS).
How did anyone think to put monarchs in space - of all places and how did the project come to fruition? Turns out BioServe Space Technologies (University of Colorado) had the desire to put monarchs in space and contacted Monarch Watch for assistance. Monarch Watch, an outreach program at the University of Kansas, is a network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to study of the monarch butterfly led by professor Chip Taylor. Monarch Watch provided the monarch caterpillars and artificial diet. The caterpillars were placed inside the “Micro-Gravity Butterfly Habitat” developed by BioServe Space Technologies early on Sunday morning the day before the launch.
To compare the development of monarch butterfly on artificial diet on earth to caterpillars in space, Monarch Watch put out a request to elementary school systems across the country for their interest in participating in this experiment.
Many schools were interested in this program and kits were sent by Monarch Watch to more than 400 schools and homes so students could track development of the monarchs in space and compare their growth to monarchs in the classroom.
Teachers and students were instructed to place caterpillars in their capsules at the same time that the capsules were loaded up for the space shuttle and to follow the caterpillar’s development closely. On November 24, 2009, all three monarchs on the ISS successfully pupated, the first monarch in the morning and the last just prior to midnight. On December 3, the first monarch successfully emerged from its chrysalis around 7AM, a female butterfly. The second monarch emerged later in the day around 8PM, a male butterfly. On December 4, the third monarch emerged but was not able to expand its wings. The gender of the butterflies was determined by the presence or absence of a black scent pouch on the hindwings. Males have the pouch and females do not. Differences between the caterpillars in space and those on Earth occurred during pupation. The “astropillars” did not hang in the typical “J” formation prior to pupation, rather they were curled somewhat in a “C” shape. Further, none of the newly formed pupae were able to attach to the substrate forcing them to emerge while “floating”. Monarchs on earth had no problem expanding their wings once they emerged. The “astropillars” had difficulty expanding their wings without the help of gravity, yet two of them expanded the wings well enough so that, if on Earth, they would have been able to fly.
While in space the monarchs passed over the overwintering ground of monarchs, a mountain range in the Transvolcanic Mountains in central Mexico. Here monarchs overwinter at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more. Migratory monarchs typically take 8-10 weeks to reach the overwintering sites, traveling 25-30 miles per day, from their points of origin in Canada and the United States. The “astropillars” are at an altitude of approximately 1,100,000 feet and have traveled approximately 3,000,000 miles (in just under 1 week) at an incredible average rate of over 17,000 mph!
The public can follow the unfolding of the KU Monarchs in Space Program and can track future developments via texts, photos, and video posted online on the Monarch Watch website. Check out the Monarchs in Space web page for specific details and progress of the Monarchs in Space program.