During August 21st’s eclipse, NASA intends to flight several balloons with bacteria colonies to study how they react and change in space.
NASA is no stranger to odd scientific endeavours – recently announcing its plans to redirect an asteroid in its DART initiative, for one – and now the agency has confirmed that its next endeavour will see it flight some 50 high-altitude balloons carrying bacteria during the total solar eclipse slated for August 21st.
Though the concept might sound somewhat barmy, the initiative (dubbed the Eclipse Ballooning Project) has a notable goal. NASA intends to study how microorganisms might react when they one day reach the surface of Mars for terraforming purposes. Read: Google Street View now takes you aboard the International Space Station
Incidentally, the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere mimics conditions found on Mars, wherein the temperature sits at roughly -37 degrees Celsius with rarified air and plenty of ultraviolet radiation.
During a total solar eclipse, conditions in the upper layer will become even more Mars-like; temperatures will decrease further, and the moon will shield some incoming ultraviolet rays.
Bacteria, then – Paenibacillus xerothermodurans for budding bacteriologists – will be tethered to metal tags aboard a flight of 34 high-altitude balloons in over 20 locations throughout the US next week, in addition to raspberry pie cameras, weather sensors and internet modems.
The bacteria aboard the balloons will remain in the stratosphere for a period of two hours, wherein upon their return to Earth they’ll be compared to a control group that has remained planetside.
Researchers will then be able to establish how many bacteria died during the journey, and if any adaptations have resulted within their DNA. The research will help determine how bacteria will react should we one day need to ship them to the Red Planet, or will give us insight into how similar organisms have survived should they already have been carried over by vehicles such as the Curiosity Rover.
Of course, the research will also help determine how life may or may not have evolved in certain climates, and how careful NASA should be in following contamination procedures when one-day ferrying objects to and from Mars.
The Eclipse Ballooning Project has left many researchers excited; David J Smith of NASA’s Space Biosciences Division told The Verge that “I don’t think it’s ever been done in terms of a coordinated astrobiology experiment happening across the entire continental United States on the same day… “This is spatial coverage that one could never dream of in other circumstances.” Read: Dream Chaser: The United Nations announces its first space mission
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Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA