By Linda Herridge
John F. Kennedy Space Center
A mission to study how the Earth’s atmosphere affects microbes has brought together researchers from Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory (SLSL) and engineers from the center’s Rocket University (RU).
In September, a meteorological airship containing a “Cloud Lab” flew over Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility carrying components of NASA’s Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (MIST) experiment.
According to principal investigator David J. Smith, a microbiologist in Kennedy’s Engineering and Technology directorate, MIST has two goals. One is to collect microorganisms at high altitudes. The other is intentionally to expose microorganisms to the atmosphere to understand how they survive while aloft.
Microbes get into the atmosphere in a variety of ways. Winds are the primary mechanism for lofting debris or dust particles off the ground, plant surfaces, roads and deserts. Solar heating also causes air to rise, carrying fine particles of organic matter, dust or microorganisms.
MIST was developed at Kennedy and will be flown to even higher altitudes next year. In addition to MIST measurements, Cloud Lab scientists are conducting several other experiments as the airship flies across the U.S. exploring various aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Smith said the relationship between the MIST team and Rocket University has been a great collaboration. Founded at Kennedy more than two years ago, RU's goal is to provide engineers and scientists at the center with more flight system and hands-on experience and to move concepts quickly through the mission life cycle.
“We will piggyback on just about any opportunity we have to get into the upper atmosphere,” Smith said. “RU’s Near Space Program, which launches balloons into the stratosphere, will allow us to tackle a variety of engineering and scientific goals.”
Andrew Schuerger, a research scientist from the University of Florida and co-investigator on MIST, is working on related research at Kennedy.
“Why does NASA care about airborne microbes? From a planetary exploration standpoint, microorganisms are present on spacecraft at the time of launch,” Schuerger said. “They’re in very low numbers because the Planetary Protection Program within NASA spends a great deal of effort to develop protocols to keep the microbial contamination on spacecraft to very, very low levels."
Schuerger’s background is in microbiology, plant pathology and astrobiology. Currently, he is using a Mars Simulation Chamber to study how bacteria found on spacecraft may survive and potentially proliferate on the surface of Mars.
According to Schuerger, knowing which microbes can survive in Earth’s dry and radiation-rich atmosphere may improve our understanding of which species might survive on a planet like Mars.
As NASA begins to explore outside of low-Earth orbit with humans once again, microorganisms are very beneficial in human activity, whether it’s in the human body itself or whether it's in a plant-growing system that might be used to regenerate oxygen, water or food for humans.
"In that case, microbes would be very beneficial to human exploration," Schuerger said.