Image: Monarch butterfly aboard the international space station.
NASA/BioServe, Univ. of Colo.
After completing its pupa stage, a Monarch butterfly emerges on the space station on Nov. 30, 2009. The Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies arrived at the station as catepillars last month on the space shuttle Atlantis.
updated 12/9/2009 2:38:21 PM ET 2009-12-09T19:38:21

The first-ever Monarch butterflies in space have taken flight on the international space station to the delight of astronauts aboard.

Space station commander Jeff Williams, of NASA, beamed video of the first of several Monarch butterflies fluttered its gossamer wings in weightlessness last week, just after the insect emerged from its cocoon and began floating around their enclosure.

"It is beautiful," Williams radioed Mission Control. "It's always beautiful to see a little bit of Earth up here."

The video showed one adult Monarch butterfly floating gently in microgravity as it opened and closed its wings to dry them.

"Congratulations to the experiment team," Williams said.

"They are very proud parents," Mission Control radioed back. "Glad you finally got the video. It's a pretty awesome site."

The Monarch butterflies are the first ever sent to space. They began emerging just days after several Painted Lady butterflies began emerging from their own cocoons in a separate enclosure.

The Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies arrived at the station as catepillars last month on the space shuttle Atlantis as part of an educational experiment. And while butterfly larvae have been sent to space before, the colorful insects on the space station now are the first to successfully go through all phases of their development — from larva to pupa to adult butterfly — in orbit.

More than 170,000 students between kindergarten and 12th grade and 2,800 teachers are following the experiment on Earth, where they are comparing the space butterflies' lifecycle with that of similar insects on the ground. The butterflies also have their own Twitter page "ButterflySpace" where status updates of their space mission appear.

At least one difference between space Monarch butterflies and their terrestrial counterparts has already been revealed. On Earth, the wings of a newly-emerged Monarch butterfly can take anywhere between three and five minutes to dry. But aboard the space station, it took about 15 minutes. 

The Monarch and Painted Butterflies were delivered to the space station inside a habitat known as the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert – 03. It was built by BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Because of the cramped quarters, the Monarch butterflies — which began emerging Nov. 30 — were only expected to live about four days, instead of the two weeks they would survive on Earth, NASA officials said. The space Painted Lady butterflies, meanwhile, are expected to live about a week, about half what they would on Earth.

The butterflies are not the first critters to live among the human crew of the International Space Station. Two orb weaving spiders managed to spin wild webs in weightlessness last year, with astronauts checking in on them from time to time.

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