Farewell, Little Space Spider

BY Jenny Marder  December 7, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

Nefertiti, the Johnson jumping spider hunting for flies inside her space flight habitat on board the International Space Station. Photo by NASA.

Nefertiti, the courageous space spider who soared into low-Earth orbit on a Japanese HTV spacecraft, spent three months hunting fruit flies aboard the International Space Station, and then returned to Earth alive, has died. She was 10 months old.

On Sunday morning, Dan Babbitt, manager of the insect zoo at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, where the spider had been moved for retirement, awoke to a sad text message. “Sorry Dan, but we think Nefi is dead,” it read.

But she lived the fullest life a spider can live. Born in Arizona, she’s traveled to Boulder, Colo.; San Francisco; Tokyo and Kagoshima, Japan; and Washington, D.C. She flew 42 million miles during her mission to outer space. And she adapted splendidly to zero gravity, sources say.

Known by many as “spidernaut,” Nefi was launched into orbit after 18-year-old Amr Mohamed, an Egyptian high school student, won a YouTube contest that involved designing experiments for astronauts. His proposal: to study a jumping spider’s ability to adapt to weightlessness in space.

Nefi, the chosen one, was the size of a pencil eraser and black with a bright red spot on her abdomen. She had large, forward-facing binocular eyes, which gave her excellent depth perception for stalking her prey. She was a jumping spider, which meant she hunted like a lion by leaping into the air, grabbing her prey with her front legs and digging into it with her fangs, injecting venom. She liked fruit flies, but preferred crickets.

And like most spiders, she ate by regurgitating stomach acid onto her food. The acid broke the tissues down into fluid, which she then sucked up, like a smoothie, or “a nice cricket milkshake,” Babbitt told me.

But in microgravity, she adapted her hunting behavior by sidling up to her prey instead of leaping onto it. And interestingly, she produced more silk in her space habitat, which Babbitt thinks she may have used to anchor herself while weightless.

“Her case was well inundated with silk, which is not normal,” he said. Plus, it stretched from one side of the case to the other, “which you wouldn’t normally see on Earth.”

As for her death, It’s hard to say what caused it, her keepers say, but they’re calling it natural causes. On Thursday, she was eating crickets and her color looked good. By Sunday, she was gone. The lifetime of her species, Phidippus johnsoni, is about a year.

“She had some extraordinary stress put on her in her lifetime,” Babbitt said. “Going up to space, traveling quite a bit, and the media coverage as well. She lived a full, natural life.”

Farewell little space spider. You did good.

(Sidenote: This brings to mind this amazing post from 2010, Shuttle Riding Bat Dies the Most Glorious Death Imaginable.)

QUICK BITES

  • John Broder of the New York Times writes about why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has not attended the annual United Nations climate change summit meeting.

  • On Wednesday’s NewsHour, we explored the toll that overfishing, pollution and rising carbon dioxide is taking on the world’s oceans. Hari Sreenivasan dove in to see the damage for himself. Watch the video here or below.
  • City birds are stuffing smoked cigarettes into the lining of their nests to drive away parasites, Nature reports.

  • Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach on Golden Spike space tourism company’s $750 million tickets to the moon: “Led by heavy-hitter former NASA executives, the Golden Spike Co. would boldly go where humankind went 40 years ago, this time commercially, hawking tickets to foreign governments or space tourists,” he writes.

  • Science News reports on a new simulation of the human brain, which can count, remember and gamble. From the article:

“Like a digital Frankenstein’s monster, Spaun was cobbled together from bits and pieces of knowledge gleaned from years of basic brain research. The behavior of 2.5 million nerve cells in parts of the brain important for vision, memory, reasoning and other tasks forms the basis of the new system, says Chris Eliasmith of the University of Waterloo in Canada, coauthor of the study, which appears in the Nov. 30 Science.”

Video by NASA Goddard/NASA’s Earth Observatory/NOAA/DOD.

  • “[A] small body of science” suggests that running in reverse can help people avoid injury, sharpen balance and burn extra calories, reports the the New York Times. It’s also called “retro running.” The downside: You can’t see where you’re going.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

Getting rid of the 40,000 pound decomposing whale that washed ashore near the bluffs beneath Barbara Streisand’s Malibu neighborhood has been complicated by jurisdictional issues, Los Angeles Times reports. Meanwhile, after four days pounded by surf, “magnificence had given way to a decomposing mess of protruding bones and ghastly strips of blubber.”

Jeremy Blackman, Rebecca Jacobson and Patti Parson contributed to this report.