Maiden Flight: autonomous biological laboratory environment designed for studying the impact of space flight on the sole reproductive node of a bee colony
Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, Felix Kraemer, Ren Ri, Jean Disset, João Costa, Sunanda Sharma, Christoph Bader, Gabriel Owens-Flores, Miana Smith, Natalia Casas, Kelly Egorova, and Prof. Neri Oxman
A mated queen bee embodies both the female and male germline (sperm, eggs) for an entire honeybee hive and lays up to 2,000 eggs daily. She is classically surrounded by a retinue of worker bees that sustain her needs as an extension of her own metabolism—providing food, thermal regulation, cleansing, and disposal of her waste. On Earth, the presence of honeybee colonies is key to the survival of a broad network of plant and animal species, including humans.
In space, the exploration of the honeybee germline in extreme environments contributes to the understanding of important future challenges ranging from off-planet pollination to cooperative biological fabrication and material-cycling. Here, The Mediated Matter Group examines new relationships between biological and architectural processes of metabolism, embodied by the design of synthetic astro-ecologies to support and study the extraterrestrial flight of the queen honeybee.
In May 2019, The Mediated Matter Group traveled to Texas to launch two laboratory capsules on Blue Origin’s sub-orbital rocket system, New Shepard. Each custom-designed metabolic support capsule comprised an experimental environment for one queen bee and an attending retinue of 10-20 nurse bees for a parabolic flight to a 100-kilometer micro-gravitational space apogee, and back.
The project explores what behavioral or physiological differences may arise in the queen bee in light of the extreme forces and unique environmental gradients traversed en voyage; including thermal gradients of 0 to 60°C, gravitational-forces of 0 to 15 G, and vertical velocities up to 1 km/s.
During the flight, the systems intended to maintain the queens’ metabolic processes were designed to be dynamically shared by retinue bees and human-made monitors: joint regulatory activity, respectively powered on sugar and electricity.
In addition, each module’s compact frame was equipped with high definition video recording (4K resolution, GoPro). The continuous documentation, embedded with humidity, temperature, and flight data, may help us contextualize the impacts on a queens’ metabolisms and how designs linking natural and synthetic homeostasis may augment survivability.
Maiden Flight represents the first space module of its kind built specifically to cater to queen bees. The hybrid-ecology of the capsule was created to take into account the distributed and uniquely non-human nature of bee biology, in order to consider how to extend the bee reproductive system for environmental extremes. This aim is reflected in the structure of the capsule interior, which was assembled by humans and augmented by the bees’ natural fabrication. Overall, this project epitomizes the Mediated Matter Group’s ethos – design for, with, and by Nature – by placing the bee at the center of the design process.
If successful, these spacefaring queens will be reintegrated into hives on Earth for continued observation of how the forces of space travel may alter queen bee physiology and behavior. The structure of the hive, as compared to queens that have only lived on Earth, will also be examined. It has been over 30 years after the last published precedents for bringing the honeybee to space (NASA 1981 STS-3 and 1984 STS-13). This project may address some of the unanswered questions left by the last voyages.
This study relates to a body of ongoing Mediated Matter research to explore the concept of metabolism, exemplified in bees and their environment, and drawing from templated and emergent behavior studies, insect biology, robotics, digital fabrication, and computational design. Insights from biological research will inform design and architectural expression, which will in turn push the scientific questions further, and form a creative and self-perpetuating cycle.
The Mediated Matter Group.
Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, Felix Kraemer, Ren Ri, Jean Disset, João Costa, Sunanda Sharma, Christoph Bader, Gabriel Owens-Flores, Miana Smith, Natalia Casas, Kelly Egorova, and Prof. Neri Oxman.
Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich, Dr. Kristian Demary, Aaron Weber, Jessica O’Keefe, the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and The Best Bees Company.
Dr. Michael Simone Finstrom, Garrett Dodds, and the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Department at the USDA-ARS.
Michael Duchouquette and Zumbido Farms.
Julia Wolfenbarger, Jacob Scoccimerra, and NanoRacks LLC.
Acknowledgments and Support:
Ariel Ekblaw and the Space Exploration Initiative, MIT Media Lab.
Jessica Tsymbal, Kevin Davis, Media Lab Facilities and MIT EHS.
MIT Media Lab, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.