Hunting for life on Mars assisted by high-altitude balloons

Will bacteria-laden high-altitude balloons help us find life on Mars? Today’s eclipse should bring us closer to an answer.

NASA Bacteria Balloons Raspberry Pi HAB Life on Mars

image c/o NASA / Ames Research Center / Tristan Caro

The Eclipse Ballooning Project

Having learned of the Eclipse Ballooning Project set to take place today across the USA, a team at NASA couldn’t miss the opportunity to harness the high-flying project for their own experiments.

NASA Bacteria Balloons Raspberry Pi HAB Life on Mars

The Eclipse Ballooning Project invited students across the USA to aid in the launch of 50+ high-altitude balloons during today’s eclipse. Each balloon is equipped with its own Raspberry Pi and camera for data collection and live video-streaming.

High-altitude ballooning, or HAB as it’s often referred to, has become a popular activity within the Raspberry Pi community. The lightweight nature of the device allows for high ascent, and its Camera Module enables instant visual content collection.

Life on Mars

image c/o Montana State University

The Eclipse Ballooning Project team, headed by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, was contacted by Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA, who hoped to piggyback on the project to run tests on bacteria in the Mars-like conditions the balloons would encounter near space.

Into the stratosphere

At around -35 degrees Fahrenheit, with thinner air and harsher ultraviolet radiation, the conditions in the upper part of the earth’s stratosphere are comparable to those on the surface of Mars. And during the eclipse, the moon will block some UV rays, making the environment in our stratosphere even more similar to the martian oneideal for NASA’s experiment.

So the students taking part in the Eclipse Ballooning Project could help the scientists out, NASA sent them some small metal tags.

NASA Bacteria Balloons Raspberry Pi HAB Life on Mars

These tags contain samples of a kind of bacterium known as Paenibacillus xerothermodurans. Upon their return to ground, the bacteria will be tested to see whether and how the high-altitude conditions affected them.

Life on Mars

Paenibacillus xerothermodurans is one of the most resilient bacterial species we know. The team at NASA wants to discover how the bacteria react to their flight in order to learn more about whether life on Mars could possibly exist. If the low temperature, UV rays, and air conditions cause the bacteria to mutate or indeed die, we can be pretty sure that the existence of living organisms on the surface of Mars is very unlikely.

Life on Mars

What happens to the bacteria on the spacecraft and rovers we send to space? This experiment should provide some answers.

The eclipse

If you’re in the US, you might have a chance to witness the full solar eclipse today. And if you’re planning to watch, please make sure to take all precautionary measures. In a nutshell, don’t look directly at the sun. Not today, not ever.

If you’re in the UK, you can observe a partial eclipse, if the clouds decide to vanish. And again, take note of safety measures so you don’t damage your eyes.

Life on Mars

You can also watch a live-stream of the eclipse via the NASA website.

If you’ve created an eclipse-viewing Raspberry Pi project, make sure to share it with us. And while we’re talking about eclipses and balloons, check here for our coverage of the 2015 balloon launches coinciding with the UK’s partial eclipse.