Space shuttle Atlantis, set to lift off November 16 for the International Space Station, will launch with more than just its six-member astronaut crew onboard. Stowed away in a biological payload module will be larvae of two species of butterfly, whose development students on the ground will track from their classrooms.

For the experiment, formally designated CSI-03, about 100 K–12 schools in the U.S. will receive habitat kits, according to a press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the space-bound payload was developed. Students will be able to observe the butterflies' metamorphosis up close on Earth and compare their development with the insects in the weightless environs of the space station. (Images of the station's butterflies will also be posted for public viewing at BioEd Online.)

The monarch and painted lady butterflies won't be the first insects, or even the first butterflies, flown in space—past experiments have also included bees, ants and silkworms.

As for the rest of the 11-day STS-129 mission, Atlantis will deliver a slew of parts to the station as the U.S. seeks to wrap up the station's construction and retire the space shuttle. After STS-129, only five shuttle missions remain on the launch schedule, all of them to the International Space Station.

Image courtesy NASA and