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Sunday, April 20, 2014

KU monarchs to take part in gravity study in space

BY RON SYLVESTER
The Wichita Eagle

Chip Taylor is used to people giving him strange looks.

As director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Taylor has placed radio tags on butterflies and tracked them across pastures and plains.

Sending monarchs to space is not that far-out an idea to him.

Three of Taylor's monarch caterpillars are set to blast off to the International Space Station on Monday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Why send butterflies to space?

To study the effects of gravity.

And yes, the thought of sending butterflies to space has drawn some quizzical looks.

But Taylor is used to that in his field.

"We got strange looks last summer when I was working with National Geographic and we radio tagged a butterfly," Taylor said. "We have to go knock on somebody's door and say 'Can we go look for our radio-tagged butterfly? We think it landed in your pasture.' I mean, you talk about having strange looks."

Studying insects helps us learn how the world around us works, Taylor said, and how it affects our lives.

"The nature of what we do is to find out what life is all about," Taylor said. "When you're doing that sort of thing you're up close and personal with all these insects, and that's something people aren't comfortable with."

About 600 individuals and schools will be able to watch the caterpillars develop as they orbit in the space station, about 220 miles outside the earth's atmosphere.

The schools will receive their own caterpillars in a small rearing station similar to that in the space station.

Students will watch those in their classrooms develop and compare them to how the caterpillars grow in space. Researchers hope they'll turn into butterflies sometime after Thanksgiving.

The object, Taylor said, is to see how gravity, or the near-zero gravity in the space station, affects the insects. These will be the first of their species to travel in space.

"It is so gravity oriented," Taylor said. "None of the insects they've taken up into space have had a particularly strong gravity orientation. The monarchs do. They're going to be in a nearly weightless environment. It could pose all sorts of different problems for them."

That will tell scientists more about movement and how life functions, said Steve Hawley, Kansas professor of physics and astronomy and an astronaut on five shuttle missions.

"The more we learn about how physiology works in space — whether it's human physiology or insect physiology or plant physiology — the more we'll be able to use that information on the ground to understand fundamentally how biological systems work," Hawley said in a statement from the university.

Monarch Watch is working on the project with the BioServe Space Technologies program at the University of Colorado.

Stefanie Countryman, business development manager with BioServe, said their program created habitat and stringent requirements for the butterflies in space.

But they had no food.

Taylor and his Kansas program developed an artificial food for the caterpillars. That's how they'll eat in space.

Since April, Taylor has been perfecting the artificial diet.

"That's what's making this all possible," Taylor said.

A study guide being sent to the schools explains that monarch caterpillars walk with 16 legs and spin silk to attach themselves to surfaces.

"What will happen when they lose their grip?" the guide asks, referring to the force of gravity on liftoff or the weightlessness of space.

How the caterpillars are able to react could teach astronauts how to move better in space, the study guide says.

"You win if they succeed, you win if they fail, because you learn something," Taylor said. "You learn what their limitations are when they fail. You learn how they adjust if they succeed."

People will be able to follow the experiment through photos, videos and other information at the program's Web site: www.monarchwatch.org/space.

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or rsylvester@wichitaeagle.com.

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