NASA plans to launch balloons filled with bacteria into the stratosphere during the greatly anticipated solar eclipse that will cross the United States on Monday.
Part of the experiment, named NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, is headed by Angela Des Jardins, Director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University. She and teams all across the U.S. will launch approximately 75 balloons into the stratosphere in an effort to livestream aerial footage of the rare celestial occurrence.
“Total solar eclipses are rare and awe-inspiring events. Nobody has ever live-streamed aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse before,” said Angela Des Jardins. “By live-streaming it on the internet, we are providing people across the world an opportunity to experience the eclipse in a unique way, even if they are not able to see the eclipse directly.”
However, more than 30 of the balloons will be used to conduct MicroStrat, a “low cost experiment” that will release a highly resilient strain of bacteria called Paenibacillus xerothermodurans into the stratosphere to simulate life’s ability to survive on Mars.
According to NASA’s website, each of the teams will be provided with two “coupons” which are small metal cards approximately the size of a dog tag. The cards will contain the bacteria that NASA assures is “harmless, yet environmentally resilient.” One card will be released with the balloon, while the other will remain on the ground. The cards will then be compared to determine bacterial survival and genetic changes.
“While most of these tiny forms of life that exist in abundance around us won’t survive the trip through space, it’s understood that some resilient types could ‘go dormant’ on the trip and then survive on the surface of the other planet. Therefore, in order to be prepared to keep planets we visit absolutely pristine, it’s important to understand how bacteria might behave there,” explained Des Jardins.
NASA explains the similarities that Earth will have to Mars-like conditions during the eclipse:
“Mars’ atmosphere at the surface is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, with cooler temperatures and more radiation. Under normal conditions, the upper portion of our stratosphere is similar to these Martian conditions, with its cold, thin atmosphere and exposure to radiation, due to its location above most of Earth’s protective ozone layer. Temperatures where the balloons fly can reach -35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, with pressures about a hundredth of that at sea level.
During the eclipse, the similarities to Mars only increase. The Moon will buffer the full blast of radiation and heat from the Sun, blocking certain ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in the Martian atmosphere and bringing the temperature down even further.”
“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. “Through this exciting ‘piggyback’ mission, NASA is collaborating with scientists of the future to take a small step in the search for life beyond our planet.”
Eventually, the balloons will pop and the bacteria will return to the ground. There is no mention on NASA’s website of the likelihood of the bacteria contaminating drinking water supplies and food crops or what possible environmental ramifications might occur.