It’s not everyday an insect can claim to have accomplished more in its short life than many people, but Nefertiti was an exception. The red-back jumping spider, nicknamed the “Spidernaut,” traveled over 40 million miles while living onboard the International Space Station earlier this year as part of a student-initiated experiment sponsored by NASA. After returning to Earth, Nefertiti went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Insect Zoo to live out the remainder of her life. Earlier this week the space-traveling arachnid died of natural causes.
The Smithsonian issued the following statement regarding the passing of Nefertiti:
“It is with sadness that we announce the death of Nefertiti, the “Spidernaut.” This morning (Dec 3), before museum hours, a member of the Insect Zoo staff discovered Neffi had died of natural causes. Neffi lived for 10 months. The lifespan of the species, Phidippus johnsoni, can typically reach up to 1 year. The loss of this special animal that inspired so many imaginations will be felt throughout the museum community. The body of Neffi will be added to the museum’s collection of specimens where she will continue to contribute to the understanding of spiders.”
NASA held a worldwide contest for high school students 14-18 years old to submit a 2-minute YouTube video proposal for a microgravity experiment to be carried out onboard the International Space Station. The contest, known as the YouTube Space Lab competition, saw over 2,000 entries from students around the world—only 2 were chosen, and one of those experiments involved Nefertiti.
Amr Mohamed, from Alexandria, Egypt, was the brains behind the idea. Red-back jumping spiders do not weave webs to trap their prey, instead they jump to attack their victims, using the element of surprise to kill unsuspecting insects and satisfy their hunger. Mohamed proposed that—due to the lack of gravity—Nefertiti would not be able to adjust to a zero-g environment and hunt successfully, and might even simply float after jumping in the microgravity onboard the ISS.
Nefertiti, however, did hunt successfully and consistently by adapting her behavior. “She was able to hunt, but in a different way,” said Dan Babbitt, acting manager of the Insect Zoo. “She kind of sidled up to her prey very slowly and grabbed them instead of doing her normal leap.”http://youtu.be/q9qF3Dgtd0o
VIDEO: Amr Mohamed’s Proposal to NASA for Nefertiti’s space mission. Video Credit: Amr Mohamed
“The idea of sending an experiment to space is the most exciting thing I have ever heard of in my life,” said Mohamed in an interview with YouTube Space Lab. “It feels great to represent all the Middle East, because Egypt’s contributions to the field of space exploration has been minimal. Competitions like YouTube Space Lab will inspire millions of people to explore and be curious about the world.”
Over the course of her 100 days in orbit, she demonstrated that her species can adjust to the microgravity of space, and return to Earth and re-adjust same as any astronaut does.
The Spidernaut launched onboard an unmanned HTV-3 cargo carrier from Tanegashima, Japan on July 21, 2012. Her home onboard the ISS was a small multi-chambered housing, complete with a spider den and an isolated compartment for her meals—fruit flies. ISS Expedition 33 commander and NASA astronaut Suni Williams took care of Nefertiti during their journey.
“I saw her stalking a fruit fly,” said Williams. “Unbeknownst to that poor little fruit fly, she was looking at it and getting real close. All of a sudden, she jumped right on him. It was amazing. So, I think the spiders absolutely adapted to space.”
Having carried out her mission as space ambassador to spiders everywhere, Nefertiti returned to Earth onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California on October 28. She lived for 10 months, a long time for her species, which typically only lives for one year.
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