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NASA’s E-MIST Experiment Soars in Earth’s Atmosphere

NASA’s Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST) experiment launched to the Earth’s stratosphere on the exterior of a giant scientific balloon gondola at about 8 a.m. MST on Aug. 24 from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Soaring 125,000 feet above the Earth, E-MIST was exposed to the upper atmosphere during a 5-hour journey over the desert, to understand how spore-forming bacteria, commonly-found in spacecraft assembly facilities, can survive.

“Like Mars, the Earth’s stratosphere is extremely dry, frozen, irradiated and hypobaric,” said David J. Smith, Ph.D., E-MIST principal investigator in Kennedy Space Center’s Engineering Directorate. “Results from E-MIST may contribute to development of procedures for preventing the microbial contamination of Mars by robotic spacecraft exploration.”

Inside a hangar at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, Prital Thakrar, at right, design lead and student engineer trainee from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Anthony Bharrat, NASA avionics lead, complete final preparations Aug. 24 on the experiment container for the E-MIST experiment.

E-MIST was contained in a special carrier that was conceived and built at Kennedy’s Prototype Development Laboratory. The 80-pound structure features four doors that rotate to expose up to 10 experimental samples each for a predetermined period of time. The structure also features a control board for autonomous operations and customizable avionics, power, environmental controls and sensors.

A team of more than 20 design, avionics, structures, analysis, science, logistics and safety engineers worked on the carrier, including Anthony Bharrat, avionics lead; Prital Thakrar, design lead and student engineer trainee from the University of Florida; and Evan Williams, an Education intern from the University of Central Florida. Nicole Dawkins, E-MIST project manager and systems engineering lead, Smith, and engineers from NASA’s Rocket University provided guidance, mentoring and support.

According to Adam Dokos, a Rocket University mentor and lead engineer in the prototype lab, some of the carrier’s components were 3-D printed and others were acquired over the counter.

The carrier contained heaters to keep the samples at room temperature as they reached the stratosphere. During the flight, the four doors rotated to expose the samples, each containing up to 1 million microbes, and to demonstrate hardware functionality, then closed again. Data was collected, including humidity, altitude, light, time and temperature, on the inside and surface of the hardware.

Preparations are underway Aug. 24 to launch NASA’s E-MIST experiment on a giant scientific balloon gondola from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico into the stratosphere above the Earth.
NASA/David J. Smith

Bharrat said it was very exciting to start a project from the beginning and then see it fly.

“I was thrilled to see our experiment go up on the high-altitude balloon,” Thakrar said. “It was especially exciting to have a live feed of the payload from the on-flight cameras during ascent. A lot of my family, friends and co-workers were watching, so I received several congratulatory phone calls during and after the flight.”

“The stratosphere is an affordable and accessible proving ground for fundamental biology questions we want to answer for Mars,” Smith said. “We have a whole library of spacecraft assembly facility microbes to test, and we are grateful for future flight opportunities provided by the NASA Balloon Program Office.”

The NASA Balloon Program is managed by the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.  E-MIST was funded by Rocket University, a training program developed by Kennedy’s Engineering and Technology Directorate and funded by NASA’s Office of the Chief Engineer.