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December 18, 2012

Spiders in Space: Nefertiti makes history

MILLEDGEVILLE —  

Chances are that spiders give you the creepy-crawlies. Do you get the vacuum cleaner out when you see one in the house? Or do you scoop them up and take them outside and let them go in the yard?

Spiders don’t get a break when it comes to being cute and cuddly. But some of them do get famous! Take, for example, Nefertiti, an ordinary red-back jumping spider (Phiddipus johnsoni for the classification aficionados among you). Jumping spiders don’t spin elaborate webs like the classic cliché spider — they use their silken strands as a kind of safety tether when they jump their prey.

Suggested by a young student from Egypt, the experiment of whether a jumping spider could adapt to life in microgravity was flown on the International Space Station this year. Named Nefertiti, the spider travelled to Earth orbit on an automated transport vessel from Japan, and then she spent several months doing her thing while the space station crew watched in fascination.

We have no idea what Nefertiti thought of her new home without an up and down, but apparently it didn’t stop her for long: she pounced on fruit flies without any trouble, quickly adjusting to the absence of normal gravity. She managed to walk up and down the walls of her comfy habitat as if it were on Earth and hunting and jumping as if she’d always lived in space.

After her tour of duty on the ISS, Nefertiti made history again by returning alive and well in the Dragon capsule with the SpaceX commercial resupply mission. And then she got a personal escort all the way to the popular Insect Zoo at the National Museum of History in Washington D.C., where she entered her well-deserved retirement. She was put on public display — still in her space habitat — after about a month.

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