NASA Is Sending Up Giant Bacteria Balloons During the Eclipse to See if We're Infecting Other Worlds

Tuesday, 15 August 2017 - 11:18AM
Space
Earth
Astrobiology
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 - 11:18AM
NASA Is Sending Up Giant Bacteria Balloons During the Eclipse to See if We're Infecting Other Worlds
Image credit: Pixabay
If you're not already pumped for next week's total solar eclipse, it's time to get even more excited: one fun side effect of the eclipse is that it'll make planet Earth's atmosphere feel a little more like Mars. 

NASA is taking the opportunity provided by the eclipse to use giant balloons to send some of our planet's most resilient bacteria into the stratosphere in order to find out just how well these micro-organisms would survive if left to their own devices on an alien world. The eclipse provides a perfect opportunity to perform this study in a controlled environment—the stratosphere is already fairly similar to conditions on Mars, but lower UV radiation during the eclipse makes the environment the perfect test to see whether bacteria will be killed off by the harsh environment (which would be ideal), or continue to live and multiply happily (which has far-reaching consequences for sterilization of NASA equipment in future).

This is important because whenever we send any kind of object, whether a spaceship or a satellite, to a foreign world, we run the risk of contaminating the environment with Earth bacteria. Some micro-organisms from Earth actually flourish in low-gravity environments, so NASA is eager to understand the potential damage that our Earth bugs could do if left unobserved on the surface of Mars. These balloon experiments are essentially an element of the Prime Directive, as explained by Star Trek, and our responsibility to not interfere with other cultures or planets that haven't developed to the point of inventing Purell. Or, to put things another way, we'd all really like to avoid the kind of mass extinction event that occurred when colonists of the 1800s took European diseases to various unprepared parts of the globe and accidentally killed off large chunks of the population.




NASA's not messing around here—the bacteria that will be used in this test is Paenibacillus xerothermodurans, which is capable of surviving intense heat at 257 Fahrenheit for days, albeit with a diminished population. If this bacteria can't survive a solar eclipse, then the hope is that the majority of other micro-organisms similarly won't be able to endure on the surface of Mars. Besides, as Paenibacillus xerothermodurans has been found in the soil near the Kennedy Space Center, there's a very real danger that we might ruin an alien environment—living or otherwise—by dumping our microscopic organisms on the Red Planet whenever we send a rover (or a million of Elon Musk's friends) to visit.

Fingers crossed this study yields the best possible results, and that the eclipse provides a solid simulation of a Martian atmosphere. Let's also hope that the study doesn't end with super-powered bacteria raining down on planet Earth. That could be awkward, and we can't necessarily count on Daleks to help us.
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