Ant Colony Sets Up Home On The Space Station

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I, for one, welcome our new space insect overlords… and the swarming RoboAnts they will inspire.

When the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo vehicle arrived at the International Space Station on Jan. 9, it was carrying a colony of intrepid six-legged insects — 600 ants. This wasn’t, however, an invasion of the two-antennae kind; the colony was safely locked in a container, prepared to begin a cool NASA-sponsored microgravity experiment.

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The Ant Forage Habitat Facility is now mounted inside the Destiny laboratory of the space station so astronauts can study how the colony reacts to the lack of gravity. The behavior of the colony is being monitored by a camera setup and a live feed is being made available to K-12 students in the US to carry out their own studies.

The applications of this experiment are wide-ranging. Ant colonies (on Earth) operate without a central command, instead relying on individual ants to aggregate information in a distributed manner. According to the ISS experiment description pages, this colony behavior is being increasingly used to coordinate swarms of robots and other complex human problems down here on Earth. So, by understanding how ants tolerate and adapt to a microgravity environment, we may be able to build better swarming algorithms.

For example, consider a hypothetical swarm of “search and rescue” drones that arrive at the scene of a building collapse or fire. Should one of their signals become jammed — perhaps electrical interference renders drone-to-drone communications useless — what behavior should the drones adopt to ensure mission success? Rather than reinventing the wheel, why not turn to evolution for help?

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“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,” said Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford University and principal investigator of the project. “Learning about the ants’ solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems.”

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio studies the newly-arrived Ant Forage Habitat Facility in the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory.
NASA

While awesome science is being carried out, schoolkids will be able to replicate the experiment in the classroom by collecting their own ants and seeing how terrestrial colonies differ from the extraterrestrial kind. However, the ants that were selected for the final frontier are of the species Tetramorium caespitum, or pavement ants, so the students can expect some subtle differences if they collect other species of ants.

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“There are 12,000 species of ants, and some species will perform better than others in this experiment,” Gordon said. “For example, invasive ants find their way into our kitchens because they’re very good at searching. Comparing results from student data will allow us to look at different search strategies of the ants in different places on Earth.”

For me, this is a fascinating learning and outreach opportunity for schoolkids as well as very creative science — a huge win-win in my books.

Of course, there is the concern that the colony might escape, multiply and take over the space station, but the researchers obviously foresaw this eventuality and only selected sterile worker ants on the mission.

So… there’s no chance of this happening… I hope: