Here’s why NASA is launching bacteria into the eclipse on balloons

As you may have heard, there’s a little thing called the Great American Solar Eclipse coming up next week , and while most people are excited because it will be the first total solar eclipse to be visible across the entire contiguous US in nearly a century, NASA plans to seize the opportunity to do a little bit of science using giant hot-air balloons during the event.

Yes, while all of us will be gleefully donning out eclipse glasses to watch this rare phenomenon, the boffins at the American space agency plan to use the occasion to conduct several experiments by launching balloons from multiple locations as part of their Eclipse Ballooning Project.

According to Gizmodo, NASA plans to send up a fleet of around 75 balloons, each of which will launch from different locations along the path of the eclipse. At least 30 of those balloons will be carrying samples of  Paenibacillus xerothermodurans, an extremely resilient strain of bacteria, to altitudes of more than 80,000 feet to mimic the conditions on the surface of Mars.

The plan is to observe how the microbe might behave on the Red Planet, just in case the bacteria should accidentally hitch a ride there as part of a future mission, Angela Des Jardins, Director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) and leader of the project, told the website.

“While most of these tiny forms of life that exists 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,” she said.

Agency to test microbe survivability while conducting eclipse research

The Eclipse Ballooning Project, which Astrobiology Magazine noted is a citizen science project involving 55 teams, also plans to capture the first ever images and video of an eclipse from near space by attaching camera equipment to the balloons and live-streaming the footage online.

The goal is to send these balloons into the stratosphere, to an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet (30,000 meters), where they will also gather data on how the planet’s atmosphere responds to the solar eclipse and conduct observations of the Sun’s corona, which is normally obscured.

As for the bacteria experiment, it involves equipping the balloons with sensors and a lightweight, thin “coupon” made of aluminum that contains spores of the P. xerothermodurans, NASA said. Once they are lifted into the stratosphere, those samples will be exposed to low-wavelength UV radiation and extremely cold and dry conditions similar to those found on Mars.

“This bacterial strain is harmless to the environment and to humans. Nothing hazardous is going to be hovering over our heads,” assured NASA microbiologist David J. Smith. Once the balloons land, scientists will check to see how many bacteria survived the voyage. Smith, who said that he is “consistently surprised by the resilience of life,” said that he believes that at least some of the microbes will be able to withstand the harsh environment.

We may have to wait a while to find out, however. Although Jardins said that NASA officials “anticipate having high-quality video and images back from the balloons flights within a day or two,” analysis of both the bacteria experiment and the atmospheric response data will take time, meaning that it will likely be “a month or two” before the results are ready.


Image credit:  Montana State University