Balloon release during eclipse will examine potential for life on Mars

This August 21, during the Great American Eclipse, most sky-gazers will have their eyes set on the moon and the sun. At the same time, researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center will focus their attention on life on Mars.

On the big day, the research team will conduct MicroSat, an inexpensive experiment using 34 high-altitude balloons to simulate a Mars-like environment and test how well life can survive there.

“The August solar eclipse gives us a rare opportunity to study the stratosphere when it’s even more Mars-like than usual,” Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, said in a statement. “With student teams flying balloon payloads from dozens of points along the path of totality, we’ll study effects on microorganisms that are coming along for the ride.”

At the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is 100 times thinner than that on Earth. As such, it’s also cooler and subject to more radiation. The upper part of Earth’s stratosphere, where the balloons will be floating, is just above the protective ozone layer and subsequently has similar features. The balloons will be met with temperatures of at least minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure about 100 times less than that found at sea level.

For the research, NASA will offer the teams two small metal cards with harmless but resilient bacteria dried onto their surface. One card will hitch a ride with a balloon and the other will remain on Earth. By comparing the bacteria on the two cards, the scientists will be able to assess what exposure to a Mars-like atmosphere does to similar organisms.

The Mars study will be made possible thanks to a group led by Montana State University’s Angela Des Jardins. Des Jardins and her team will launch over 50 high-altitude balloons across the United States. As a part of NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, the balloons will beam back live-streamed footage from the edge of space.

“Total solar eclipses are rare and awe-inspiring events. Nobody has ever live-streamed aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse before,” Des Jardins said in a statement. “By live-streaming it on the internet, we are providing people across the world an opportunity to experience the eclipse in a unique way, even if they are not able to see the eclipse directly.”