Microbes Fly Overhead in This Year’s Solar Eclipse

When the sun vanishes behind the moon, living organisms behave as if twilight is here. Crickets start to chirp, flowers close up, and cows head to the barn.  In this year’s highly anticipated solar eclipse, microbes will also fly high in the sky on giant balloons as part of a citizen science project called the Eclipse Ballooning Project.

The Eclipse Ballooning Project harnesses the scientific curiosities of 55 teams across universities, high schools, and ballooning groups. These citizen scientists will capture footage along the path of totality across the Unites States. This will be the first time videos and images of a total eclipse will be documented live from near space.

Piggybacking on the Eclipse Ballooning Project, microbes will travel up to the stratosphere in the high-altitude balloons as part of NASA’s MicroStrat project. At 30,000 meters high, these microbes in flight can clue us in on how life may exist beyond the Earth.  Each balloon team will have two metal cards containing harmless bacteria on their surfaces. One card goes up into the sky while the other stays behind on earth. Comparing the bacteria on the two cards after the eclipse will give clues into how bacteria survive and change when faced with these conditions.

In the upper atmosphere, microbes will be exposed to Mars-like conditions: extreme cold, low pressure, oxidation, solar irradiation, and desiccation. The shadow of the solar eclipse only makes the stratosphere even more Mars-like. During the solar eclipse, the moon blocks some types of ultraviolet radiation from reaching the stratosphere that are less common on Mars and the temperatures during the eclipse will also be closer to the temperature on Mars. This study can also help astrobiologists evaluate possibilities of microbial contamination during space travel.

High altitude balloons will bring microbes into the stratosphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

This isn’t NASA’s first rodeo when it comes to flying microbes on balloons. In 2015, a project called E-MIST (Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere) launched a balloon into the stratosphere to see how spore-forming bacteria are affected by these conditions. The scientists found that after 480 minutes in the stratosphere less than 0.001% of bacterial spores were viable. The scientists concluded that most terrestrial bacteria would be inactivated within the first day on Mars if the contaminating spacecraft was in direct sunlight. However, upon sequencing the genomes of the few bacteria that survived in the stratosphere, the scientists found three mutations within the genome, suggesting that if bacteria were subjected to Mars-like conditions, they may be evolutionarily pushed to mutate for survival.

These three short minutes of total darkness has fueled a wealth of exciting scientific questions and has the potential to generate copious amounts of data. Check out some of the other of experiments planned for the solar eclipse this year.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Microbes Fly Overhead in This Year’s Solar Eclipse by Jennifer Tsang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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