If you thought you’d have to go to outer space to get away from those pesky ants, you might want to think again. Today, about 800 pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) set out on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) for a science project that elementary and secondary school students can participate in on earth. The ants are the next in a series of organisms that have been sent to space as a part of a project by Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Educational Outreach 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.

The 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 at Baylor’s Center for Educational Outreach.

Behaviors and microgravity

Ants have very 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 will help determine whether these behaviors change in microgravity.

The ants will be sent to the ISS in eight separate compartments with about 100 ants per compartment. Once on the Space Station, the compartments will be opened to see how the ants explore new sections of their habitats. 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.

Classroom investigations

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.

Previously, the Center has worked on projects to send butterflies, spiders and plants to space to observe their behaviors in microgravity.

“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,” said Moreno.

Download the free teacher's guide and get more information on the experiment.