A Balloon-Based Payload for Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST)

David J. Smith, Prital J. Thakrar, Anthony E. Bharrat, Adam G. Dokos, Teresa L. Kinney, Leandro M. James, Michael A. Lane, Christina L. Khodadad, Finlay Maguire, Phillip R. Maloney, Nicole L. Dawkins


The survival and transit of microorganisms in Earth's upper atmosphere is relevant to terrestrial ecology and astrobiology, but the topic is understudied due to a scarcity of flight systems. We designed, built and flew a self-contained payload, Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST), on a large scientific balloon launched from New Mexico on 24 Aug 2014. The payload carried Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032, a highly-resilient spore-forming bacterial strain originally isolated from a NASA spacecraft assembly facility. Our test flight evaluated E-MIST functionality in the stratosphere, including microbiological procedures and overall instrument performance. Herein, we summarize features of the E-MIST payload, protocols, and preliminary results that indicate it is possible to conduct a tightly-controlled microbiological experiment in the stratosphere while collecting pertinent environmental data. Additional studies of this nature may permit survival models for microbes traveling through Earth's harsh upper atmosphere. Moreover, measuring the endurance of spacecraft-associated microbes at extreme altitudes may help predict their response on the surface of Mars.


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