There are a whole lot of cool things we want to take with us to Mars (food, habitats, the entire library of Netflix on hard drive), but there are a couple things we’d prefer not to carry over to our next celestial home. Namely: bacteria.
In an effort to determine whether a future manned mission to Mars might accidentally include some of Earth’s “hardiest” bacteria, NASA has sent a helium-filled scientific balloon to Earth’s stratosphere in an effort to expose it to the harsh conditions it might find on the surface of Mars. The project will study how long the bacteria can survive under those conditions, which would roughly translate into how long they might survive on the Red Planet. Humans will have a hard enough time getting around up there without bringing extra germs along.
“If we want to discover life on other planets we need to know if we are introducing Earth life as we explore,” said David J. Smith, scientist in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and principal investigator for the study. “There are terrestrial microorganisms that can survive space-like conditions. We know some of these same microorganisms are onboard robotic spacecraft so we need to be able to predict what will happen when they get to Mars.”
The mission will carry the balloon up to 120,000 feet, with the bacteria housed in specialized containers that can be opened and closed on command. At that height, conditions are absolutely lethal, with radiation and air at a near-vacuum. Mars is similar, so NASA feels this should make for one excellent testing ground.