Case Louwman, of Paraparaumu, asks :-

Some years ago an American schoolgirl suggested sending spiders up into space and observe their construction of webs in a weightless environment. Was this ever done and if so what was the result?

Simon Pollard, a zoologist and science communicator at the University of Canterbury who is also a RadioNZ science correspondent and the author of several science books for children, responded.

The idea of sending spiders into space, may seem like the plot of a bad horror film, but over the last forty years, a few spiders (or spidernauts) have travelled with human astronauts into space.

The reason for sending spiders into space, was to see the impact of microgravity on their ability to build silken webs, which the spider uses to trap flying insects. The family of spiders, commonly called the orb-web spiders, have been around for about 200 million years, and they use silk, the trademark of spiders, to build spiral wheel-shaped webs. On Earth, these spiders rely on gravity to build their webs. Initially, the spider connects a line of silk between two points and then it drops down with another line of silk from the centre of the first line to form a Y-shaped structure. The spider then extends 'spokes' of silk from the centre of the Y and this is the platform on which the spider can attach a spiral of silk which often contain glue-droplets, so prey become stuck to the web.

In 1973, two common female orb-web spiders named Anita and Arabella joined the crew of Skylab. Their home was like a window frame and after adjusting to being weightless, both spiders built webs similar to those they had built on Earth. However, there were a few subtle differences to the webs built in space. Overall, the silk was thinner and this may have been because the spider perceived the lack of gravity. Also, the silk spun in space was thin in some places and thicker in other places, while on Earth is was much more uniform. It is thought that this may have been the spider trying to control the elasticity of the silk and the web it was building in space.

Since 1973, other orb-web spiders have become spidernauts and joined a very exclusive spider club.