While not all microbes have survived the journey, after returning home, the one previously detected on the International Space Station, the black mold Aspergillus niger, could be revived.
According to a study that could be critical to the success of future missions to the Red Planet, some microbes found on Earth could temporarily survive on the surface of Mars.
Researchers from NASA and the German Space Center tested the resistance of microorganisms to Martian conditions by releasing them into the stratosphere, the second major layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, which accurately represents key conditions on Mars.
Study published in the journal Boundaries in microbiology, paves the way for understanding not only the dangers of microbes for space missions, but also the possibilities for the independence of resources from Earth.
“We have successfully tested a new way of exposing bacteria and fungi to Mars-like conditions using a science balloon to fly our experimental equipment to Earth’s stratosphere,” said Marta Filipa Cortesao, the first author of the study from the German Space Center. “Some microbes, especially spores from the black mold fungus, were able to survive the journey even if they were exposed to very high ultraviolet (UV) radiation.”
When searching for extraterrestrial life, scientists need to make sure that everything they discover doesn’t just travel from Earth.
“On long-term missions to Mars, we need to know how human-related microorganisms would survive on the Red Planet, as some may pose a health risk to astronauts,” said first author of the joint book Katharina Siems, also based at the German Aerospace Center. “In addition, some microbes could be invaluable for space exploration. They could help us prepare food and material supplies independently of Earth, which will be crucial when away from home.”
Many key environmental features on the surface of Mars cannot be found or easily replicated on the Earth’s surface, but the conditions in the middle stratosphere are remarkably similar.
“Microbes were released into the stratosphere within the MARSBOx payload (microbes in the atmosphere to test radiation, survival, and biological outcomes), which was held under Mars pressure throughout the mission and filled with the artificial atmosphere of Mars,” Cortesao explained. “There were two sample layers in the box, and the bottom layer was protected from radiation.”
This allowed the researchers to distinguish the effects of radiation from other tested conditions: dehydration, atmosphere, and temperature fluctuations during flight.
The top layer samples were exposed to more than a thousand times higher UV radiation than the levels that can cause sunburn on our skin.
“Although not all microbes have survived the journey, black mold has already been detected on the International Space Station. Aspergillus niger, could be revived after returning home, “Siems explained.” Microorganisms are closely related to us; our body, our food, our environment, so it is impossible to exclude them from space travel. “