Did you know that in the early 1990′s, there were close to 60,000 jellyfish orbiting Earth? No, this was not some kind of near miss with an alien space invasion! Instead it was all in the name of science… once again.
As part of NASA’s first Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS-1) Mission in 1991, over 2,000 moon jellyfish (funny enough) polyps were launched into space on the space shuttle Columbia. Astronauts induced these polyps to strobilate and produce baby jellyfish then monitored their development to adulthood. The purpose of the experiment was to study how the lack of gravity in space effects jellyfish development and to determine whether adult jellyfish would behave differently once back in the gravity of Earth. Though jellyfish seem more closely related to aliens than to us humans, we both share a common orientation according to gravity.
In humans, tiny crystals in our inner ears lay on a bed of specialized hairs called hair cells. When we move, the crystals roll around inside our inner ear and move the hair cells, signaling to the brain which way is up, down, left, or right. Similar hair cells exist in tiny pockets at the margin of the jellyfishs’ bell (the umbrella) allowing them to sense up and down. Of course, jellyfish do not have a brain so instead, these signals are sent to a much more simplified nerve net.
Jellyfish that developed in space looked very similar to their Earthling relatives, except that their motor skills were different once back on Earth. The space jellyfish showed irregular pulsing and movement as though they had taken a few too many jello shots – they were essentially suffering from vertigo.
The results of this study tell us that for human babies growing up in space, Earth may by a dizzying place!