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BHSU staff member leads local student ballooning team to help NASA learn about life on Mars

Author: BHSU Communications/Thursday, August 24, 2017/Categories: Events, Students, Academic Affairs, College of Business and Natural Sciences, Community, Staff, Sanford

Last year, NASA reached out to a group of local students to help them conduct an experiment that could help us understand where life could survive beyond Earth. On August 21, a group of local students joined with more than 50 other teams to release a balloon to the furthest reaches of the atmosphere – almost to outer space – to livestream the solar eclipse and carry bacteria for a NASA experiment.

Dr. Peggy Norris, Black Hills State University Deputy Director of Education and Outreach at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, led a team of area undergraduate and high school students to Scottsbluff, Neb. for their balloon launch. This was Norris’ 15th viewing of a total solar eclipse.

“This project gave the students a taste of what a complicated engineering endeavor entails,” said Norris, and how teams of scientists and engineers with many different skills come together to solve problems and work towards a common goal.

The balloon carried several payloads for both scientific measurements as well as cameras and instruments to track and communicate to the balloon. The students who took responsibility for the NASA biology experiment will be included in any papers that are published with the results.

The South Dakota Solar Eclipse team was organized in response to a call from NASA for student teams to take part in this project, with funding through the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium.

"Performing a coordinated balloon microbiology experiment across the entire continental United States seems impossible under normal circumstances," said David J. Smith of NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, the lead scientist for the experiment. "The solar eclipse on August 21 is enabling unprecedented exploration through citizen scientists and students."

As the Moon passed in front of the Sun during the eclipse, casting a shadow across the continental U.S., the balloons not only had a front-row seat to record the historic event, but they also exposed the harmless bacteria they carried to the closest conditions to Mars possible on Earth.

Mars’ atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, with cooler temperatures and more radiation. Because the edge of our atmosphere is above most of Earth’s protective ozone layer, it’s exposed to greater levels of radiation – more than Mars – and it's cold and thin. However, during the eclipse, the similarities to Mars increased. The Moon buffered the full blast of radiation and heat from the Sun, blocked certain ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in the Martian atmosphere and brought the temperature down even further.

So, even though a postcard from the Atacama Desert or other places on Earth may look more Martian, for a biologist the place most similar to the Red Planet is less than 20 miles above our heads, especially during the eclipse. By sending up bacteria, scientists are able to see how life reacts to a Mars-like environment, giving us a sense of how likely it is that bacterial life could exist on Mars, and what form it might take.

Smith said that post-eclipse we now have about 10 times more samples to analyze than all previously flown stratosphere microbiology missions combined.

Students like the local team have been in close communication with scientists and interns from the Space Life Science Training Program at Ames. Each team received its own customized instructions and equipment depending on each balloon’s design, with variations in material ranging from cardboard to foam, requiring different adhesives.

The non-hazardous bacteria is stored in special metal cards, no bigger than a military dog tag, which will be attached to the balloons. It was originally discovered living in the soil near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, in the 1970s.

On the day of the eclipse, teams conducted their launches independently, while NASA’s equipment collected data alongside their own. A GPS tracker allowed the launch teams to follow their balloons from the ground.

Once the balloons reached the edge of the atmosphere, where they popped, a parachute brought the payload down to Earth. Teams chased down and recovered the returning equipment, and will send it back to Smith’s research team. NASA’s team will then analyze the samples, testing not only for bacterial survival, but genetic and biological change.

The results will help biologists take the next step in understanding the conditions that sustain life on this planet, and may help NASA better target locations to look for life on other worlds.

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