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Objects of Intrigue: The Spiders Who Spun in Space

article-imageAnita in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (photograph by beccapie/Flickr)

Alongside the huge airplanes and spacecrafts in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is a small spider who went to space, the name “Anita” stuck onto her preserving jar. Anita and her companion spider Arabella were part of an experiment to see if spiders would weave their webs once propelled out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Spiders are known to use the weight of their bodies to coordinate their web weaving, so a change in gravity was something scientists were interested in testing, especially as studying the nervous system of spiders could have an impact on essential drugs for humans. As NASA explains on their site:

The experiment was designed to measure motor response, an indication of the functioning of the central nervous system. Drugs such as stimulants and sedatives affect the nervous system by causing degradation of certain motor responses. In an effort to study the effects of drugs, researchers have often utilized spiders as test subjects. The geometrical structure of the web of an orb-weaving spider provides a good measure of the condition of its central nervous system.

article-imageHigh school student Judith Miles presenting her proposal for a Skylab experiment with spiders in 1972 (via NASA)

Last week the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum shared Anita and one of the spider cages also on display on their Twitter. The idea to send spiders to space actually came from a 17-year-old  Lexington, Massachusetts, high school student named Judith Miles. She proposed the “Web Formation in Zero Gravity” test as part of an initiative to bring 25 student experiments aboard the Skylab 3 mission. Two common Cross spiders were selected, given a housefly meal before launch, and from July 28 to September 25, 1973, they were sent to spin where no webs had been spun before. 

After being coaxed into the cages designed specifically for the experiment, neither spider started web building immediately in the microgravity, reportedly demonstrating “erratic swimming motions” upon entering. A camera was trained on their movement, and despite the totally unfamiliar dislocation from the planet, in two days Arabella built a web, and later Anita would spin one of her own. They were finer webs than those they made on Earth, but otherwise not completely dissimilar. 

Neither spider made it back to earth, both dying likely due to dehydration, surviving the harrowing journey, but not the limitations on their care. Yet the experiment was revealing about the adaptation of motor response in space, building webs despite a major stimulus — their body’s weight — being disrupted. While Anita is on display in the Smithsonian annex at Washington Dulles International Airport, Arabella is on loan at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There are several of these involuntary animal participants in space exploration preserved in space museums, from dogs Belka and Strelka in Moscow to Miss Able the monkey, also in the Smithsonian. Yet it’s easy to overlook these arachnids who so incredibly constructed their delicate webs out soaring with the stars.

Flight Director Neil B. Hutchinson & astronaut Bruce McCandless II with a glass enclose for the spider Arachne (via NASA)

Dr. Ray Gause of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center feeding a housefly to Arabella by placing it in her web (via NASA)

article-imageArabella on her web (via NASA)

Objects of Intrigue is a feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here >