Nancy Moreno follows butterflies launched into space

Nancy Moreno: For this particular investigation, we selected painted lady butterflies – they’re a very common butterfly. They also have a relatively short life cycle, so their entire transformation happens within the time span of a month.

Nancy Moreno is a principal investigator on the experiment, launched in November 2009, to the International Space Station. The experiment is from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and University of Colorado at Boulder.

Nancy Moreno: The conditions in orbit allow us to investigate what happens to living systems when they’re not influenced by the pull of gravity on Earth.

At the same time, students and teachers are growing their own butterflies on Earth.

Nancy Moreno:
And this is where it gets really exciting for us on Earth. This is an open-ended experiment.

Every half hour, a photo of the butterflies is taken and posted on a website. Students can use the photos to compare butterflies in their classrooms to the butterflies in space.

Nancy Moreno: The butterflies in space experiment allows students to be active participants in authentic science that’s happening in real time. They’re going to be generating their own questions, gathering their own evidence, and coming up with their own explanations.

Moreno explained that the butterflies in space experiment will help scientists – and students – understand how gravity influences growth. On the International Space Station, the butterflies will live in what’s called microgravity.

Nancy Moreno: Microgravity is the term that is generally used for what we feel in orbit. It’s a condition in which clearly, Earth is still exerting gravitational pull. But since objects are in a state of free fall, and everything is falling together, the force of gravity is not felt. So we are able to conduct experiments that are independent of gravity.

She added that the experiment could be important for the future of human space exploration.

Nancy Moreno: It will help us what happens to organisms like butterflies on Earth, and it will certainly help us understand how we can for longer periods of time in space. We know there are challenges to living in space, not just for humans, but for other organisms which might be in space with them.

Moreno said that the most important aspect of the experiment is to engage students in scientific discovery.

Nancy Moreno: Just as no one ever learned how to drive a car by reading a textbook in a driver’s ed class, it’s very difficult to learn how to ask good questions and develop scientific explanations without an opportunity to conduct authentic investigations in science. And if you ask most scientists and science teachers why they chose careers related to science, the answer usually is an opportunity they had in school that sparked their imaginations and got them excited about the natural world. So in this case, the science and what we may learn about life in space from this experiment is important. This time, what is more important is that the opportunity is open to everyone. Who knows what someone will discovered, and who knows who will be inspired to do something wonderful in science and technology?

More information about the butterflies in space experiment can be found at The project is a collaboration among the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Baylor College of Medicine, and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, with additional support from Houston Endowment Inc. and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Our thanks to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute – innovations for health in space and on Earth. For the Butterflies in Space lesson plan, click here.

November 23, 2009

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