Rather than being the title of a classic cult horror movie, “Ants in Space” is actually the name of a NASA program aimed at establishing a colony of ants on the International Space Station. In partnership with the BioServe Space Technologies Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, scientists at NASA have successfully sent 800 ants into space in order to study how the little critters act in low-gravity environments.
Ants have developed a sophisticated system for exploring their surroundings called “distributed algorithms.” Ant colonies depend on worker ants to monitor situations and to conduct searches. Their behavior, the result of millions of years of evolution, allows ants to efficiently search for food or map new territory by changing their foraging patterns based on the density of ants in their area. Ants rely on smell and touching antennae to communicate with each other.
When these interactions occur frequently, ants know there is a higher density of individuals in the area, and they change their search accordingly. When ants detect fewer of their friends in a given area, they move in straight lines to cover more ground.
Why study ant behavior in space? Scientists hope to glean valuable information from the ants’ patterns of behavior that they can apply to robotics.
"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," Stanford University biology professor Deborah Gordon, an expert on animal collective behavior who helped devise the experiment, said in a statement. "Learning about the ants' solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems."
The type of ant NASA chose to send into space was the common pavement ant, Tetramorium caespitum, the same pest usually found in households. They were delivered, after multiple postponements, by unmanned supply rockets called Doves, according to Headlines and Global News.
Once on the ISS, the 800 ants were divided evenly into eight chambers. Engineers aboard the ISS erected moveable barriers between the compartments that they could remove and replace as they choose. They’ll record the ants’ behavior and beam the footage to scientists back on earth for analysis.
“Ants assess their own density at the rate at which they meet,” BioServe Business Development Manager and Education Program Director Stefanie Countryman said in a statement. “The experiment examines whether in microgravity ants will use the rate 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.”