Red Rocks Student Team Helps NASA Learn About Life On Mars

September 15, 2017 – Last month, a group of Red Rocks Community College students participated in a nationwide NASA project to capture data and images of the eclipse from the edge of space – an experiment that could help us understand where life could survive beyond Earth.

The Space Grant Eclipse Ballooning Project team from RRCC were students Kayla Andis, April Beal, Alex Langfield, Levi Lignon, Nick Pine, Zach O’Connell, and Annie Strange; and faculty advisors Dr. Barbra Sobhani and Dr. Brandon English. The group joined more than 50 teams across the nation to release a balloon to the furthest reaches of the atmosphere to livestream the solar eclipse and carry bacteria for a NASA experiment.

The RRCC Eclipse team began preparing for the Great American Eclipse in 2016. April Beal, RRCC student representative on the Colorado Eclipse Team, attended a training workshop in Montana last summer with the rest of the Colorado team (students from Community College Aurora, University of Northern Colorado and University of Colorado). The team developed the payload that was launched and flown in Guernsey, WY during the Eclipse to conduct a livestream of the event from space across the path of totality.

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 were carrying.

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. However, during a solar eclipse, the similarities to Mars increase. The Moon buffers the full blast of radiation and heat from the Sun, blocking certain ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in the Martian atmosphere and bringing the temperature down even further. So, even though a postcard from the 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, researchers can see how life reacts to a Mars-like environment, giving a sense of how likely it is that bacterial life could exist on Mars, and what form it might take.

Once the balloons reached the edge of the atmosphere, they popped, and a parachute brought the payload down to Earth. The teams then recovered the returning equipment and sent it back to the NASA research team to test the samples for bacterial survival, plus 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.

“The eclipse was an amazing opportunity to engage students and the public in science, said Dr. Sobhani, RRCC Associate Professor of Physics and science department chair. “It is exciting to have our undergraduate students doing cutting-edge research. I am very proud of their efforts.”

In addition to the statewide team, RRCC put together a student team to design their own project to go into space. A typical high altitude balloon launch travels to 90,000-1000,000 ft. The students decided to test the viability of seeds that are exposed to high altitude conditions (low pressure, cold temperatures and increase radiation and UV exposure). These conditions are similar to a Martian environment. Seeds exposed to the Martian-like environment would then be grown in both Earth soil and Martian simulated soil and compared to seeds grown that were not flown.

The first test launch was flown last year on August 21 to closely simulate the conditions and location of the Eclipse day launch. A simple payload design and hardware was flown. The team conducted three additional test launches in April, May and July, refining their experiment design and flying batches of seeds. A unique spherical cage design allowed for maximum exposure of the seeds, while protecting them during launch and landing. The seeds from the test launches were planted and students had their first crop of “Martian” vegetables by Eclipse day. The students will continue to grow the seeds flown on Eclipse day. Preliminary results have shown that the seeds that were flown sprout and grow more quickly than the control seeds.

This project was supported by NASA and the Colorado Space Grant program (COSGC). RRCC is a NASA Space Grant affiliate and Barbra Sobhani is the Affiliate Director for COSGC at RRCC.