BCM Center for Educational Outreach Ants In Space Science Project Lifts Off For ISS

After waiting three days for a “polar vortex” caused, record-busting cold snap to moderate, Orbital Sciences Corporation on Thursday morning successfully launched its Antares medium-class rocket carrying the first of eight Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the company’s $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. The launch of Orbital’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft will culminate in rendezvous and berthing with the ISS on Sunday, January 12 at approximately 6:00 a.m. (EST).


Cygnus will deliver approximately 2,780 lbs. (1,260 kg.) of cargo to the Expedition’s 38 astronauts, including about 800 pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) that have been sent to the ISS as a part of a science project by Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Educational Outreach that elementary and secondary school students are participating in on earth. The ants are the latest in a series of organisms sent to the ISS in coordination with BioServe Space Technologies of the University of Colorado Boulder, NASA, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. Scientific expertise on ant behavior is being provided by Stanford University.

Liftoff of Orbital’s Antares rocket was at 1:07 p.m. (EST) January 9 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia. The two-stage Antares space launch vehicle utilizes a liquid-fueled first stage powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines and a solid motor ATK CASTOR 30B upper stage to boost Cygnus into orbit. Following a 10-minute ascent, the Cygnus spacecraft was successfully deployed by the Antares upper stage and placed into its intended orbit of about 135 x 175 miles (220 X 280 km) above the Earth, inclined at 51.6 degrees to the equator. Approximately 25 minutes later, Orbital’s engineering team confirmed that reliable communications had been established and that the solar arrays were fully deployed, providing the necessary electrical power to command the spacecraft.


“It was another excellent launch of Antares, and so far, our first CRS mission is off to a great start with Cygnus operating exactly as anticipated at this early stage of the mission,” says Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer in a release. “Our team has put in a lot of hard work to get to the point of performing regular ISS cargo delivery trips for NASA. It’s an exciting day for all of us and I’m looking forward to completing this and our future CRS missions safely and successfully for our NASA customer.”


Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS until February 18, when it will depart for Earth with approximately 2,800 lbs. (1,300 kg.) of disposable cargo for a safe, destructive reentry over the Pacific Ocean.

Space Station Not Your Average Ant Farm

nancymorenoBCMThe aim of the project is to see how ants behave in microgravity when they explore habitats of different sizes, according to Dr. Nancy Moreno, Professor, Allied Health Sciences and Family and Community Medicine and Senior Associate Director of the Center for Educational Outreach at Baylor College of Medicine at Houston.

The “Ants in Space,” experiment will examine foraging patterns based on the density of the common Pavement Ant, according to BioServe Business Development Manager and Education Program Director Stefanie Countryman.

Baylor’s Center for Educational Outreach developed a classroom version of the habitat, which enables students to conduct their own investigations on earth. Students can view footage from the ants on the ISS and compare their behavior to the behavior of the control group of ants in their classroom.

“The most important finding from an educational perspective is that teachers and students will participate in authentic science investigations if given the opportunity. When you provide teachers with an exciting, real-world project, they will find the time to integrate it into their curriculum,” says Dr. Moreno.

Previously, the Center has worked on projects to send butterflies, spiders and plants to space to observe their behaviors in microgravity. “Spiders and Fruit Flies in Space” experiments, also an educational opportunity for K-12 students, were previously launched to the International Space Station aboard NASA’s shuttle missions STS-134 and STS-135. The experiments are supported by NASA in collaboration with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, the ISS National Lab Education Office, Baylor College of Medicine – Center for Education and Outreach, the Butterfly Pavilion, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Orion’s Quest.

Behaviors And Mircrogravity

The ants have been be sent to the ISS in eight separate compartments with about 100 ants per compartment. Aboard the Space Station, the compartments will be opened to see how the ants explore new sections of their habitats. Ants have interesting social behaviors. Research has shown that ant colonies operate without central control. Instead, the complex behaviors of members of the colony result from ant-to-ant interactions. “The experiment examines whether in microgravity ants will use the rUCcountrymanate at which they meet to assess density, and so use straighter paths in the larger habitat areas. The results will be compared to ground controls, which in this case will include ant habitats in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world,” Ms. Countryman observes. The experiment will include about 60 minutes of video footage per compartment. Both the video and an educational guide will be available free online for teachers and students.

“Ants assess their own density at the rate at which they meet,” says Ms. Countryman. “Past experiments by Professor Deborah Gordon, principal investigator on this project, have shown that some ant species have the ability to search areas collectively without individual communication. When ant densities are high, each ant thoroughly searches one small area in a circular, ‘random’ walk, she said. When ant densities are low, each ant searches by walking in a relatively straight line, allowing it to cover more ground.”

BioServe is partnering with Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Education Outreach, a longstanding BioServe partner that has developed the education curriculum guide for the experiment.

In the past 25 years, BioServe has designed, built and flown microgravity life science research experiments on more than 40 space missions, and has a full suite of space flight hardware, both on the ISS and on the ground, supporting its own research as well as research conducted by its customers and partners. Past BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers.

BioServe research partners on the ant project include Gordon of Stanford University and Associate Professor Michael Greene of the University of Colorado Denver. The experiment is sponsored by NASA’s National Lab Education Office as well as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a nonprofit group headquartered in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This program allows K-12 students to participate in near real-time space research, learn about collecting and analyzing research from NASA scientists and to gather their own parallel, ground-based data to analyze. “Students have access to the data in their classrooms, and they have an opportunity to help analyze spaceflight data themselves” says Sharmilla Bhattacharya, the NASA Ames Research Center Life Scientist who worked with the students in developing the science studies program.

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact Stephanie Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu. More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at:
http://www.bioedonline.org and http://www.bioedonline.com/

Download the free teacher’s guide for more information on the experiment.


Orbital privately developed the Antares launch vehicle to provide low-cost, reliable access to space for medium-class payloads. It is the largest and most complex rocket the company has ever produced. The Antares medium-class launch vehicle provides a major increase in the payload launch capability to NASA, the U.S. Air Force and commercial customers.

antareslaunch2The Antares rocket will launch spacecraft weighing up to 14,000 lbs. into low-Earth orbit, as well as lighter-weight payloads into higher-energy orbits. Orbital’s newest launcher is currently on-ramped to both the NASA Launch Services-2 and the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 contracts, enabling the two largest U.S. government space launch customers to order Antares for “right-size and right-price” launch services for medium-class spacecraft. For more information on Antares, visit http://www.orbital.com/SpaceLaunch/Antares/

Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) joint research and development initiative with NASA, Orbital also developed the Cygnus spacecraft, which is an advanced maneuvering vehicle that meets the stringent human-rated safety requirements for ISS operations. Cygnus consists of a common Service Module (SM) and a Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM). The SM incorporates avionics, power and propulsion systems already successfully flown aboard dozens of Orbital’s LEOStar and GEOStar satellite products. The PCM, designed and built by Thales Alenia Space under a subcontract from Orbital, is based on the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) used with the Space Shuttle.


Under a $1.9 billion CRS contract with NASA, Orbital will use Antares and Cygnus to deliver up to 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS over eight missions through late 2016. For these missions, NASA will manifest a variety of essential items based on ISS program needs, including food, clothing, crew supplies, spare parts and equipment, and scientific experiments. Together, these products showcase Orbital’s ability to apply rigorous engineering approaches and commercial business practices to significantly shorten development timelines and lower operational costs of sophisticated space systems as compared to traditional government-run programs.

For more information on Cygnus, visit http://www.orbital.com/NewsInfo/Publications/Cygnus_fact.pdf

Orbital Sciences Corp.
University of Colorado Boulder
Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Education Outreach

Image Credits:
Orbital Sciences Corp.
Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Education Outreach

About Charles Moore

Charles Moore
Charles Moore is a syndicated columnist for several major Canadian print newspapers and has an extensive background in covering technology. He serves as a Contributing Science and Technology Editor for BioNews Texas.
Scroll To Top