Microorganisms, like bacteria and virus, are known for their tenacity to survive in the most extreme environments. In a research, published last year, the International Space Station found that certain spore-forming bacteria can even survive interplanetary travel, hitched onto parts of a spacecraft. This increases the risk of contamination, especially in planets and other celestial bodies that have not yet been explored. Before man can colonize Mars, the scientists at NASA intend to see if these pertinacious microbes can remain alive in the Red Planet’s harsh surface conditions.
To that end, the US-based space agency has launched a helium balloon, carrying specially-designed chambers filled with bacteria, to the Earth’s stratosphere. With its upper layers situated nearly 120,000 ft above the surface, the stratosphere is marked by severe conditions, almost similar to the Martian environment. In addition to being extremely dry and cold, it is usually inundated with intense solar radiation and has near-vacuum atmospheric pressure. By sending a collection of bacteria to the edge of the space, the researchers will be able to determine the extent and duration to which these tenacious microbes can survive in such an inhospitable environment. Speaking about the experiment, David J. Smith, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said:
If we want to discover life on other planets we need to know if we are introducing Earth life as we explore. There are terrestrial microorganisms that can survive space-like conditions. We know some of these same microorganisms are onboard robotic spacecraft so we need to be able to predict what will happen when they get to Mars.
For the research, entitled “Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere”, the scientists launched a helium balloon, on September 26, from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in New Mexico. Attached to the balloon were specialized containers, loaded with bacteria, which protected the bugs during the flight. The chambers were programmed to automatically open, once the system reached its target altitude. Following this, the microbe samples were exposed to the harsh elements prevalent in our planet’s stratosphere, for periods of up to 6, 12, 18 and 24 hours, respectively.
At the end, the balloon exploded, leaving the bacteria-filled chambers to parachute back to the Earth. The researchers are currently trying to analyze the samples, in search of extant microbial life. Smith added:
I suspect the bacteria will survive, but we just don’t know until we fly them up there and take a look afterwards in our lab.