Ants… in… Spaaace!

Image: Edmund Scientifics

Orbital Sciences delayed Wednesday’s planned launch of a re-supply mission to the International Space Station. But what are they shipping to the ISS?

Along with fresh food, water, and clothes, this mission will also have a supply of ants.

These ants aren’t uninvited hitch-hikers, they’re VIPs getting a ride into space courtesy of a NASA project to partner with K-12 educational programs. This particular research effort will look at the ants’ foraging patterns and how their search patterns while looking for food change depending on their perception of how dense their population is. Previous ant research on the Space Shuttle and Space Station has shown that ants can change their behavior quite a bit in a microgravity environment, such as their tunneling patterns.

In this case, common pavement ants on Earth tend to search for food differently if they know there are a lot of compatriots in the area vs. if they are spread thinly. They assess their density based on the frequency at which they bump into other ants as they’re searching. The question is if they use the same density determination and if they change their search patterns the same way in space as they do on a downtown sidewalk.

Good scientific research needs control groups to compare to the experimental subjects, and in this case the controls will be ant colonies in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world. According to CU-Boulder:

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact [Education Program Director] Countryman at More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at

This is just one small example of the kind of research that ISS is doing, combined with the mission to get kids more involved in space science.

Hangout with Astronauts Today

International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Image: NASA.
International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Photo: NASA/Public Domain

Today, May 23rd, from 3-4 PM EDT, you can join a NASA hosted Google+ hangout with three of the former International Space Station (ISS) astronauts. NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn and Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency are back home in Houston, Texas, and undergoing physical rehabilitation after their recent return from their extended time in the nearly weightless environment.

The three are prepared to answer questions about their daily life on the orbiting outpost. As part of their normal onboard operations, the three were involved in scientific experiments, spacewalks, and normal maintenance.

Google+ Hangouts allow as many as 10 people or groups to chat face-to-face, while thousands more can watch the conversation live on Google+ or YouTube. The hangout also will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

If you have a specific question that you would like to ask, submit it on twitter to the NASA social media team! Simply include #askAstro as part of your tweet, and it will be added to the pool of questions that will be answered. Just before the hangout begins, NASA will also be opening a discussion on its Facebook page for questions to be asked. Remember the more original and unique the question the more likely it is to be chosen.

NASA’s Google+ page:
NASA’s TV Streaming video:

Commander Chris Hadfield Sings Space Oddity

As “a last glimpse of the World,” Commander Chris Hadfield recorded a revised version of “Space Oddity” by David Bowie on board the International Space Station (ISS).

Watching it put something in my eye. That’s all I have to say about that.

After spending five months on board the ISS, and becoming the first Canadian Commander of the ISS in March,  Commander Hadfield is due to return tomorrow after a very successful mission.

Dragon*Con Diary: My Two Favorite Science & Space Track Panels

Richard Garriott, moderator June Scobee Rogers and Captain William Shepherd speak at the “Evolution of a Space Station” panel. This panel was part of the Space track at Dragon*Con 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

We sure hope you’re enjoying our series of Dragon*Con Diary posts from our amazing Labor Day weekend in Atlanta!

As I’d mentioned in an earlier Dragon*Con Diary post, my family felt the most at-home at the Space and Science Tracks throughout our Dragon*Con weekend.

While others had chances to meet such sci-fi stars as John Barrowman, and attend panels with the cast of True Blood, my family was not going to be as patient with those incredibly long lines and levels of uber-fandom that we don’t quite have.**

**I was reprimanded by a Harry Potter fan for accidentally mixing up a dementor and a Death-Eater while in a discussion of the Boggart-Banishing Spell. I know the difference between the two and my choice of words was purely accidental, but to see this gentleman’s face twist up and his words “Please get your story straight!” was still very humiliating. But I digress…

The Science and Space Tracks were perfect for us! Here are summaries of my two favorite panels from those tracks.

Continue reading Dragon*Con Diary: My Two Favorite Science & Space Track Panels

Robonaut: NASA vs Lucasfilm vs Stark Industries

Robonaut R2

Robots are cool. The first robot I remember was Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I thought he was amazing. An alien robot who didn’t talk, he guarded his master’s spaceship with fierce devotion and shot a laser beam from his head that destroyed puny Earth weaponry without hurting anyone. I wanted a Gort to guard my tree house from the nasty boy who lived next door. Later, I’d see Star Wars and amend my wish to wanting my very own R2D2. Now, as a grown-up, I am amending my wish once again. I want my very own Robonaut.

On Monday, the brains at NASA activated Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to help astronauts on the International Space Station. The idea is that he will someday do the things that are a bit too dangerous for us mere mortals. He’s been up there since February, but it took a little time to get his software loaded and prep him for his first big test. All went as planned and Robonaut powered up without blowing up, so all the little science types at NASA are very happy.

This first test involved turning on the four visible light cameras that are his eyes and the one infrared camera in his mouth that’s supposed to be for depth perception. Sure, I’ll believe that for now but I’m going to steer clear of what could be a killer-laser-beam-of-doom just in case he gets angry. And as though the guys at NASA could read my mind, they’ve gotten Robonaut his own twitter account so we can all have friendly chats with him and set our minds at ease.

As you can see in the picture, he looks like a cross between an astronaut in a white space suit and Iron Man. That gold head would make Tony Stark assemble the copyright lawyers faster than you could shoot a laser beam. He’s also technically called Robonaut R2 which brings into question approval from the folks at Lucasfilm. Somehow this robot has Iron Man’s head and is named after the droid we’ve all been looking for since we were kids. So, despite my uncertainties about that infrared camera he’s hiding, once the inevitable legal showdown between Stark, Lucasfilm and NASA clears, I am first in line for a Robonaut R2 of my very own.