The Ant Forage Habitat Facility is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member on the International Space Station.
ESA/NASA, acknowledgement: Nick Rose
In a recent Hubble Space Telescope observation, a double-ringed planetary nebula and massive star have been observed -- this is a star in serious trouble; the fuse has been lit and it could go supernova any day now.READ MORE: Tick, Tick, Tick: Hubble Spies Star Set to Self Destruct
A new observation by NASA's NuSTAR and Chandra space telescopes has been released, depicting a nebula nicknamed the “Hand of God”READ MORE: Spooky 'Hand of God' in Space Reaches for Clouds
On Jan. 9, Orbital Sciences launched its Antares rocket, boosting the company's unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Two and a half days later on Sunday, the spacecraft, loaded with supplies and experiments, caught up with the orbiting outpost.PHOTOS: Cygnus Berthing: How to Grapple a Swan in Orbit
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio studies the newly-arrived Ant Forage Habitat Facility in the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory.
The ant experiment will study the insect's behavior and colonization in microgravity. The colony arrived on board the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo delivery earlier this month.
Planet Labs Inc.
The company Planet Labs hopes to change the world one mini-satellite at a time. Launched to the International Space Station, the fleet of cubesats called Flock 1 will be put into orbit to begin various Earth-observing projects.READ MORE: Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time
On Jan. 16, Mars rover principal investigator Steve Squyres announced the bizarre appearance of a doughnut-sized rock feet from the robot. The leading theory is that Oppotunity's broken wheel flicked it from the bedrock as it was maneuvering, but scientists have yet to definitely say whether or not the rover is to blame.READ MORE: Mystery Rock 'Appears' in Front of Mars Rover
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.
Tracking weather conditions on other planets is no easy task, but if we start playing close attention to dune formation, we could develop a means to at least know which way the wind is blowing. Shown here is wind blown material on Mars that can be used to study wind direction and geological conditions.READ MORE: Sand Dunes Could Reveal Weather on Alien Worlds
ESA/NASA/SOHO/The SUMER team, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany
A series of observations performed with the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) to study the evolution of reconnection jets on a small patch of the sun’s surface.
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Long, medium, short and irregular gravity waves have been observed in Venus’ atmosphere by the European Mars Express orbiter -- similar gravity waves can be found on Earth and are often caused by winds blowing over mountain ranges.READ MORE: Mountains on Venus Make Waves in the Sky
I, for one, welcome our new space insect overlords… and the swarming RoboAnts they will inspire.
When the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo vehicle arrived at the International Space Station on Jan. 9, it was carrying a colony of intrepid six-legged insects — 600 ants. This wasn’t, however, an invasion of the two-antennae kind; the colony was safely locked in a container, prepared to begin a cool NASA-sponsored microgravity experiment.
The Ant Forage Habitat Facility is now mounted inside the Destiny laboratory of the space station so astronauts can study how the colony reacts to the lack of gravity. The behavior of the colony is being monitored by a camera setup and a live feed is being made available to K-12 students in the US to carry out their own studies.
The applications of this experiment are wide-ranging. Ant colonies (on Earth) operate without a central command, instead relying on individual ants to aggregate information in a distributed manner. According to the ISS experiment description pages, this colony behavior is being increasingly used to coordinate swarms of robots and other complex human problems down here on Earth. So, by understanding how ants tolerate and adapt to a microgravity environment, we may be able to build better swarming algorithms.
For example, consider a hypothetical swarm of “search and rescue” drones that arrive at the scene of a building collapse or fire. Should one of their signals become jammed — perhaps electrical interference renders drone-to-drone communications useless — what behavior should the drones adopt to ensure mission success? Rather than reinventing the wheel, why not turn to evolution for help?
“We have devised ways to organize the robots in a burning building, or how a cellphone network can respond to interference, but the ants have been evolving algorithms for doing this for 150 million years,” said Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford University and principal investigator of the project. “Learning about the ants’ solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems.”
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio studies the newly-arrived Ant Forage Habitat Facility in the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory.NASA
While awesome science is being carried out, schoolkids will be able to replicate the experiment in the classroom by collecting their own ants and seeing how terrestrial colonies differ from the extraterrestrial kind. However, the ants that were selected for the final frontier are of the species Tetramorium caespitum, or pavement ants, so the students can expect some subtle differences if they collect other species of ants.
“There are 12,000 species of ants, and some species will perform better than others in this experiment,” Gordon said. “For example, invasive ants find their way into our kitchens because they’re very good at searching. Comparing results from student data will allow us to look at different search strategies of the ants in different places on Earth.”
For me, this is a fascinating learning and outreach opportunity for schoolkids as well as very creative science — a huge win-win in my books.
Of course, there is the concern that the colony might escape, multiply and take over the space station, but the researchers obviously foresaw this eventuality and only selected sterile worker ants on the mission.
So… there’s no chance of this happening… I hope: