Applied and Environmental Science

NASA Will Send Up Balloons Carrying Bacteria During the Eclipse

During the eclipse today, NASA will send 34 bacteria-carrying, high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere to gauge the effect of Mars-like atmospheric conditions on living organisms.  At the same time, students led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University will send more than 50 high-altitude balloons from different locations in the path of totality to livestream the event and provide aerial footage from the edge of space to NASA’s computers.

The experiment will give us more data on the environmental limits of terrestrial life that will help guide our search for life on other worlds and determine what preparations will be needed to send human-accompanied space flights to the planet Mars.

high altitude hydrogen balloon

The project is called MicroStrat, and NASA gave each MicroStrat team two small metal cards the size of dog tags that carry Paenibacillus xerothermodurans, a harmless, environmentally resilient bacteria, dried onto their surface.  One card will fly up with the balloon and the other will remain on the ground.  After the balloons come back to earth, scientists at NASA’s Ames Exploration Center in Mountain View, CA, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, plus scientists at Cornell University, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration will compare the cards, look at how well the bacteria survived stratospheric conditions, and see what metabolic and genetic changes those conditions caused.

“Performing a coordinated balloon microbiology experiment across the entire continental United States seems impossible under normal circumstances” said David J. Smith of Ames, principal investigator of the experiment and mentor for the Space Life Science Training Program, the intern group developing flight hardware and logistics for this study.  “The solar eclipse on August 21 is enabling unprecedented exploration through citizen scientists and students.  After this experiment flies, we will have about 10 times more samples to analyze than all previously flown stratosphere microbiology missions combined.”

Mars’ surface atmosphere is almost 100 times thinner than Earth’s, which means temperatures are colder and there is more radiation exposure.  The upper portion of our stratosphere is similar to Martian ground conditions because it is above Earth’s protective ozone layer.  The temperature is normally around -35oF and atmospheric pressure is about a hundredth of the pressure at sea level.  The eclipse will increase the similarity of our stratosphere to the Martian surface because the Moon will buffer the Sun’s radiation and heat, blocking the ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in Mars’ atmosphere and lowering the temperature even further.

Most of the people preparing and releasing the MicroStrat balloons will be students, some as young as 10, who volunteered for the project from schools in Puerto Rico, Alaska, and the rest of the continental United States.

“This project will not only provide insight into how bacterial life responds to Mars-like conditions, we are engaging and inspiring the next generation of scientists,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.  “With student teams flying balloon payloads from dozens of points along the path of totality, we’ll study effects on microorganisms that are coming along for the ride…and collaborate with the scientists of the future.”

For more information, go to NASA Solar Eclipse, which also has the address of the eclipse livestream.




2017-08-23 13:46:22

The results must be interesting I really like to know how they will survive the condition Good luck


2017-08-23 13:45:01

The results must be interesting