Monday’s total solar eclipse will provide some much-needed wholesome enjoyment for all of us here in the United States. To make things even sweeter, NASA—in collaboration with researchers at Montana State University—will be seizing the opportunity to launch some giant balloons during the event.
Scientists aren’t sending up balloons because they’re super stoked about the eclipse, though they are (probably). These enormous balloons are part of a project aptly named the Eclipse Ballooning Project, and will be used to run several experiments, one of which could help researchers preparing for a mission to Mars.
Out of the total fleet of roughly 75 balloons, over 30 of them will carry small samples of an extremely resilient strain of bacteria called Paenibacillus xerothermodurans over 80,000 feet above Earth. The P. xerothermodurans samples will be attached to thin, aluminum “coupons” and attached to the outside of the balloons. According to the researchers, Earth’s stratosphere is similar to the surface atmosphere on Mars, so they’ll be able to get some idea of how bacteria might behave there.
“We have to be extremely careful that we don’t bring bacteria or other tiny Earth organisms to other planets,” project leader Angela Des Jardins, Director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC), told Gizmodo. “While most of these tiny forms of life that exists in abundance around us won’t survive the trip through space, it’s understood that some resilient types could ‘go dormant’ on the trip and then survive on the surface of the other planet. Therefore, in order to be prepared to keep planets we visit absolutely pristine, it’s important to understand how bacteria might behave there.”
In addition to testing out some hearty bacteria, the balloons will have cameras attached to them in order to capture cloud video. The team hopes this will be useful to scientists looking to understand cloud formation during a solar eclipse. Some balloons will also carry tiny weather stations called radiosondes, which researchers can later use to study how Earth’s atmosphere responds to an eclipse.
“We anticipate having high-quality video and images back from the balloons flights within a day or two,” Jardins said. “Analysis of the bacteria experiment will be done by scientists at Cornell and it will likely be a month or two before results are ready. Analysis of the atmospheric response to the eclipse (from our special set of weather balloons) will similarly take a month or two.”
So if you’re watching the eclipse this Monday, don’t forget to look up: you might just see a giant ball of bacteria floating in the sky. Just kidding, you won’t. Also, don’t look up without wearing eclipse glasses or you’ll go blind.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the balloons would be traveling 80,000 miles above Earth. It is actually 80,000 feet. Our bad! We’ve edited the text to reflect the change.