Can a spider spin a web even when torn free of the grip of gravity? Thanks to a research experiment devised by Judith Miles, we know!
Each mission to the Skylab space station carried a set of student experiments, a tradition that continues today on the International Space Station. Then-high school student Judith Miles from Lexington, Massachusetts proposed sending spiders in a box to the space station, then observing their behaviours to see how they coped with microgravity. The Web Formation in Zero Gravity experiment flew on Skylab 3 in July 1973.
After adapting, Anita and Arabell both produced serviceable webs. Image credit: NASA
Both cross spiders Anita and Arabell resisted leaving their transportation vials into the experimental area, and made “erratic swimming motions” when first ejected into the window boxes. After initial messy partial webs, the following attempts were far more tidy.
Miles was inspired by National Geographic reports on research into the impact of drugs on the central nervous system of spiders. Spiders use the influence of wind and gravity to determine how thickly they should spin a web, so Miles was hoping the lack of gravity would provide novel stimulus for the spiders.
A golden orb spidernaut in her habitat on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
The experiment was repeated in November 2008 and again in 2011 when pairs of golden orb spiders spent a stint on the International Space Station. For the 2011 experiment, after initially constructing a terribly chaotic web the spiders Gladys and Esmerelda finally built a far more symmetric web.
You can download a free lesson plans on how spiders weave webs in space here produced by NASA and BioEd Online.