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. Space Critters Will One Day Be A Boom Industry

extra hands make light work
by Wayne Smith
Brisbane - Apr 28, 2003
Bug eyed monsters. We've all seen them. We were even frightened by them before desensitisation to the movie monster genre set in. The 1964 movie 'The first men in the moon' was based on a science fiction novel written by H.G.Wells.

It gives a convincing portrayal of the first lunar landing with humans bouncing around the surface of the moon in rapture. This was made several years before Apollo explorers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually did it for real.

We see incredulous astronauts then discover a fallen dust covered British flag with a letter proclaiming the moon to be in the posession of Queen Victoria. An investigation into this conundrum leads to an old pensioner at a retirement home who then relates the story of how he and his companions went to the moon in 1899.

Thus the mood is set for a flashback to the ingenious and pioneering Victorian era when creativity was so thick in the air you could carve it with a knife. When men dared to quantify nature and anything seemed possible.

Many of the special effects which must have been astounding to behold in 1964 at the very height of the space age still look quite impressive today.

Stop-motion photography had just about reached perfection by this time. Computers as powerful as pocket calculators were still as big as a house and wouldn't become the source of movie magic for decades.

Anyway, to the story. As a young unsuccessful debt ridden playwright Mr Arnold Bedford is bedevilled by regular loud explosions coming from his eccentric neighbours property.

Confounded in his attempts to overcome writers block by these incessant shakings of the countryside he finally decides to march on over and confront the source of his problem.

There he meets Joseph Cavor the mad scientist responsible for the din. An absent minded if cheerful fellow who uses geese to guard his laboratory. He has invented a paint which upon drying shields objects from gravity and being no fool the young Arnold Bedford immediately sees the potential of such a revolutionary discovery.

Even if Cavor seems utterly clueless of its true value. They end up in a buisness partnership and begin constructing a bathysphere-like vehicle in which to travel to the moon.

Along with Arnolds fiancee they achieve this goal and using deep-sea diving suits proceed to explore the airless surface. It isn't long before they then stumble upon the entrance to a subterranean kingdom and plunge wrecklessly on to find it full of strange alien devices.

This world is inhabited by giant caterpillar-like moon cows and a race of sentient ant-like monsters who try to imprison the astounded visitors.

Ofcourse, the moon doesn't to the best of our knowledge house any giant bugs. Probably never has either. Never will? Now thats debatable. The extraordinary size of the insects portrayed in this story were explained away by the low gravity of the moon which is one sixth that of earth. So how possible is it that insects could really grow to enormous dimensions outside of Earth's restrictive gravity?

Micro-gravity experiments are among the chief tasks being carried out aboard the multi-billion dollar International Space Station. Of these broad ranging tests the effects on life are a top priority.

Other work is going on such as making near perfect ballbearings for gyroscopes but to colonise space we must above all else know the effects that longterm exposure to weightlessness and positive particulate radiation might have on life. Much can be learned about ourselves by first experimenting on animals.

Animals such as dogs and chimps did ofcourse pave the way for manned exploration and as we plan for reaching out further into space we will first rely upon 'guinea pigs' to gather essential data.

As human teams are rotated aboard the freefalling assemblage of used rocket modules and prefabricated sections that comprise the ISS a number of other less human passengers will remain. Science and engineering still has a long way to go in fathoming all the possibilities of zero gravity but we have made a start.

Australian students recently contributed garden variety spiders to NASA's research programs aboard the ISS. Adding to the list of different flora and fauna already being studied.

Scientists are now curious as to what kind of web patterns if any these space spiders might weave as they float about. Plants like Soy and Rice have already been grown in freefall. The Chinese have even hatched space chickens. Depending on the results of all these experiments its conceivable that one day primary industries such as farming will eventually exist in space.

Selectively breeding animals in microgravity conditions could in fact become big buisness. One day in the not too incredibly distant future(fingers crossed) space colonies will look towards self sufficiency and what we learn now will decide how best they can go about it.

Its easy for us to overlook invertebrates when considering which specimens of life might have potential value to us in space. We tend to immediately think of animals we know. Down here on earth the creepy crawlies don't receive a great deal of respect.

This is because they are small and anything small is generally considered insignificant. From midges weighing 0.1 milligram to sluggish beatles weighing 30 grams the land dwelling invertebrates aren't very impressive upon first glance. However, the chief reason for their diminutive size is in fact gravity.

Bugs hate gravity. Therefore they may be the best suited of all animals to thrive in zero gravity conditions.

Invertebrates do make up the bulk of animal life on earth. If not for certain physiological limitations of size imposed by gravity and respiration they would now rule this world. Long ago they actually did. As the first animals to conquer the land they dominated it for millions of years. Giant dragonflies such as the Meganeura Monyi with its one metre wingspan flitted about the ferns of Carboniferous forests over 300 million years ago.

Without interference from birds or amphibians. A rich variety of insects, arachnids and countless other invertebrates had their own kingdom for a time. This rich food source might indeed have been the main incentive for fish to grow feet and invade the land themselves.

One effect of gravity we are all aware of can be summed up by the expression "the bigger they are, the harder they fall". This maxim, despite being mostly used by young 'toughs' asphyxiated on alcohol is nonetheless true. The bigger and heavier you are the more you will notice that gravity impairs motion.

Elephants are the only species in the animal kingdom today which cannot jump and for good reason. The dinosaurs who ruled the Earth for over 150 million years grew to enormous sizes but had hollow bones just like birds so as to reduce weight.

The great sauropods, largest of all the land dwelling animals to have ever existed were built structurally like suspension bridges. The bigger you are the more crushing is the effect of gravity on your body. Yet a mouse can fall from a table top and hit a hard floor without injury.

A drop analogous to a human being jumping off a cliff. Ants can lift around fifty times their own mass, which sounds remarkable. Yet if an ant was as big as a man it would be incapable of even moving its own body.

Shelled invertebrates are virtually the opposite to us backboned creatures with internal skeletons and only a soft outer skin. Insects, arachnids and many other tiny animals have an external skeleton for very good reasons. It provides attachment points for muscle ligaments, a method of defense against hungry predators and a useful means of water conservation.

Because area increases to the square of length while volume increases to the cube of length the issue of water conservation is a serious problem for small animals.

This exo-skeletal system also serves to aid the respiratory system. There are several types of respiratory organs for invertebrates. Trachea and gills are most common. Diffusion lungs might be used by smaller animals instead of the ventilation lungs we use.

All animals use oxygen to obtain the energy required to power their bodily engines and they release carbon dioxide in the process. This works through the oxidation of molecules containing carbon.

The shell can also help remove waste and increase sensory reception. On the inside these critters are essentially gooey. A setup consisting of pipes might channel air in from holes along the shell to where its needed. This system works well for an insect body with its high surface area to volume ratio. The shell itself is actually made up of four distinctive layers.

An epidermis, endocuticle, exocuticle and epicuticle.

Bear with me those of you who aren't entomologists.

Its not as technical as it sounds.

The epidermis is a skin that secretes chemicals to make the other 3 layers. The endocuticle is made up of proteins and a kind of modified sugar called chitin.

One of the most common biological materials on earth which has the benefits of being solid yet flexible.

Next is the exocuticle which is made up of the same materials as the endocuticle but has more rigidity to it. The proteins and chitin in this layer are crosslinked in much the way as the vulcanised rubber used in tyres has been crosslinked using sulfur to form a stronger more versatile material than the natural latex rubber it started out as.

The harder areas of the skeleton will have a thicker exocuticle layer. Finally comes the epicuticle which is very thin. Really just a waterproofing finish that includes a layer of wax.

In order to grow they must shed their confining shell to grow a new and larger one. This involves a complex yet efficient molting process. With the exoskeleton being their support its difficult to maintain shape and survive very long without it.

Especially if you are very big. Imagine human beings with no internal skeleton. A puddle of jelly on the floor. When bugs shed their exoskeleton they are in a similar predicament. The big drawback with a hard bony shell covering your entire body instead of an internal one is that its mass can seriously slow you down.

As creepy crawlies get bigger their thick armour plating gets increasingly cumbersome. Gains in muscular strength just can't keep in step with the extra load upon a ballooning surface area.

As a consequence of this big bugs are sluggish and more easily caught by predators. So this exoskeleton sets a size limit on mini-beasts which has kept the land dwelling varieties down for nearly half a billion years.

Invertebrates without an outer skeleton are the earthworms and slugs who depend upon camouflage, concealment and vast numbers of young to survive.

Denizens of the ocean and other watery environments do however give exception to this rule. This is because on earth the one environment which most closely simulates the weightless conditions of space is the ocean. Its because of this buoyancy that the largest creatures on Earth can be found here. The buoyancy of a liquid medium mimics zero gravity so well that NASA uses a swimming pool for astronaut training.

Arthropods like crabs and lobsters are giants compared to their land dwelling cousins such as spiders. You can also find massive invertebrates with no internal or external skeleton. The giant octopus and near legendary giant squid with eyes as big as dinner plates are examples of what micro-gravity can achieve.

Ofcourse, as much as buoyancy mimics zero gravity its no substitute for the real thing.

Successful space farming will depend upon choosing the right animals for the artificial space habitat environment. We now know from experience that vertebrates such as ourselves develop brittle bones in space.

Our muscles waste away to slush and the immune system weakens leaving us more open to attack from common viruses. There is also cardiovascular de-conditioning. Astronauts return to Earth with low blood pressure and less blood volume which may be because the heart is a muscle too.

Invertebrates on the other hand might be better suited to space conditions. Their small size is a result of actually requiring microgravity conditions to survive.

Existance at the humble dimensions of a bug is already very similar to the zero gravity of space. Put them in an environment where microgravity conditions exist for everything independant of its size and we might be able to selectively breed such mini-beasts into much larger specimens.

One obstacle to this would be the respiratory systems of these invertebrates which don't scale up aswell as ours do. A solution to this problem could be to increase the oxygen ratio in the air mix and give them a denser atmosphere. Since space farms will be man made habitats with such controls built in to them this should be no problem. Over time I'm certain the mini-beasts would learn to adapt anyway.

Farming giant bugs. I can see readers faces screwing up right now. Yuck! Farming doesn't necessarily mean food farming although experiments with giant lobsters or honey bee's might prove interesting. Other material science could be just as rewarding though.

Medical serums such as spider venom antidotes are made up from samples of the actual venom. Spider farms already exist for extracting this expensive commodity.

Catching each tiny spider with thick gloves and then provoking it into attacking a rubber membrane covering a jar to obtain only a pitiful amount of venom is not a very efficient exercise.

Larger spiders would mean larger venom glands. Various silks are another material in great demand. Giant silkworms might revolutionise the fabric industry. Spider silk on the other hand while not in demand for fashion clothing is actually stronger than steel and very light.

An expensive synthetic based on the spider silk protein is used in bullet proof body armour which is much lighter than kevlar. Through a cutting edge breakthrough in gene splicing technology a new 'spider-goat' has been created which produces the spider silk protein in its milk. This was done to reduce the cost of spider silk production.

Imagine how much more silk could instead be extracted from a spider the size of an elephant. Now let your imagination go. Innovative new enterprises such as these could help to open up the final frontier. How about the tourism possibilities? Space habitats with giant butterflies the kids can ride on. Wouldn't that be a holiday to remember. Zoo's of giant critters.

Think Jurassic Park with 6 or 8 legs. Construction maybe? Giant termites could inexpensively turn asteroids into space cities. The possibilities truly are endless. Does it sound just a little too ridiculous to take seriously? Perhaps so but then space travel was ridiculous a century ago.

Mini-beasts have short lives and breed rapidly. They can pass through thousands of generations to our one.

So selective breeding should give rapid results.

Compact they might be but they are also extremely advanced organisms which have had time to virtually perfect their form. Many have not changed very noticably in hundreds of millions of years despite high adaptability and fierce competition for limited resources.

When our ancestors were still coming to grips with crawling onto the land they had already learned how to fly. Brains small enough to sit on the head of a pin can put our bulky home computers to shame. A bee can recognise 6 different types of flower, remember which times of day their petals open, navigate by landmarks and follow rules established to make it part of a very complex hive society.

Mini-beasts are truly miraculous little animals even if close examination of them might make us feel a little itchy and want to scratch.

Of course, as with all science, there is a dark side. I would be remiss not to mention the obvious risks.

Bigger bodies mean bigger brains. Although what exactly causes intelligence is still largely a mystery to us there is strong reason to suspect that size does matter. Critters that have successfully competed in the animal kingdom despite having a near microscopic brain might become a whole lot more formidable to us when unleashed from the confines of size set by mother nature.

Larger animals have the capacity for developing more complex internal organs and its not impossible that such highly adaptable creatures as these could then find ways of surviving higher gravities. Possible answers to gravity might be found which didn't exist for their diminutive forebears.

Then there are the military applications. We might find all sorts of uses for giant spiders, earwigs and centipedes in our endless efforts to find better ways of killing each other. Their eggs and larvae might even be capable of surviving the harsh coldness of space. This would make smuggling them a whole lot easier.

All of this is pure speculation ofcourse but then thats how science begins. By first asking a question.

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