On Monday, August 21, millions of people across the United States will turn their eyes to the skies to witness the first total solar eclipse for nearly a century.
But while normal civilians are scrabbling to put on their cardboard glasses, NASA scientists will be working on a unique experiment that could bring mankind a step closer to determining whether life can exist on Mars.
During an eclipse, the conditions just beyond the ozone layer are very similar to Mars. The temperature, the atmosphere and the UV light levels very closely resemble conditions on the Red Planet.
A group of scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California plan to attach metal tags laced with bacteria to 34 balloons, and allow them to float up to the outer atmosphere, exposing the bacteria to these Mars-like conditions.
The balloons will remain in the outer atmosphere for a few hours during the eclipse, before bursting and sending the tags with the bacteria tumbling back to Earth.
The scientists will then examine the tags to see whether the bacteria survived the extreme conditions and whether it mutated.
The study is the biggest of its kind, and could inform NASA’s search for life on other planets. It might even shed light on bacteria that has hitched a lift on Rover missions to Mars.
“The August solar eclipse gives us a rare opportunity to study the stratosphere when it’s even more Mars-like than usual,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The study, which piggybacks on a student-led project, provides an opportunity for students as young as 10 to get involved in NASA and astrobiology.
Ballooning is such an accessible and low-cost technique, the project has attracted student teams from Puerto Rico to Alaska.
“The solar eclipse on August 21st is enabling unprecedented exploration through citizen scientists and students” said David J. Smith of Ames, principal investigator for the experiment.
“After this experiment flies, we will have about 10 times more samples to analyse than all previously flown stratosphere microbiology missions combined.”