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NASA balloon flight tests whether bacteria can live on Mars

NASA researchers recently launched a helium-fileld scientific balloon to the edge of space to discover if bacteria might be able to hitch a ride to Mars and survive after they get there.

The abloom voyage is designed to expose the bacteria to conditions similar to those found on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA researchers will measure how long the bacteria can endure the conditions, and they also will study the biological underpinnings of bacterial survival in harsh conditions.

Gianine M. Figliozzi, of the Space Biosciences Division of the NASA Ames Research Center, explains:

Earth’s stratosphere is an extreme environment. Situated above 99% of Earth’s protective atmosphere, conditions are dry, cold, and bathed with intense ultraviolet solar radiation. The air pressure is so low it’s nearly a vacuum. For these reasons, Earth’s stratosphere is a great stand-in for the surface of Mars.

“If we want to discover life on other planets we need to know if we are introducing Earth life as we explore,” said David J. Smith, scientist in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and principal investigator for the study.

“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.”

A specialized hardware system that will be used for the study, Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST), was developed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The E-MIST system was successfully flight tested during a five hour balloon flight in 2014. A report on the test flight was published in the December 2014 issue of Gravitational And Space Research.

The first full science mission using the E-MIST system launched from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on 26 September. During this mission, the balloon reached altitudes upward of 36,500 metres.

The video below is a history of NASA’s scientific ballooning program.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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