On Monday, August 21, millions of people across the United States will turn their eyes to the skies to witness the first total solar eclipse for nearly a century. But while normal civilians are scrabbling to put on their cardboard glasses, NASA scientists will be working on a unique experiment that could bring mankind a step closer to determining whether life can exist on Mars.
During an eclipse, the conditions just beyond the ozone layer are very similar to Mars. The temperature, the atmosphere and the UV light levels very closely resemble conditions on the Red Planet. A group of scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California plan to attach metal tags laced with bacteria to 34 balloons, and allow them to float up to the outer atmosphere, exposing the bacteria to these Mars-like conditions.
The balloons will remain in the outer atmosphere for a few hours during the eclipse, before bursting and sending the tags with the bacteria tumbling back to Earth. The scientists will then examine the tags to see whether the bacteria survived the extreme conditions and whether it mutated.