What lives at the very edge of space? Other than high-flying jet aircraft pilots (and the occasional daredevil skydiver) you wouldn’t expect to find many living things over 10 kilometers up – yet this is exactly where one NASA researcher is hunting for evidence of life.
Top image via NASA.
Earth’s stratosphere is not a place you’d typically think of when considering hospitable environments. High, dry, and cold, the stratosphere is the layer just above where most weather occurs, extending from about 10 km to 50 km (6 to 31 miles) above Earth’s surface. Temperatures in the lowest layers average -56 C (-68 F) with jet stream winds blowing at a steady 100 mph. Atmospheric density is less than 10% that found at sea level and oxygen is found in the form of ozone, which shields life on the surface from harmful UV radiation but leaves anything above 32 km openly exposed.
Sounds like a great place to look for life, right? Biologist David Smith of the University of Washington thinks so… he and his team have found “microbes from every major domain” traveling within upper-atmospheric winds.
Smith, principal investigator with Kennedy Space Center’s Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (MIST) project, is working to take a census of life tens of thousands of feet above the ground. Using high-altitude weather balloons and samples gathered from Mt. Bachelor Observatory in central Oregon, Smith aims to find out what kinds of microbes are found high in the atmosphere, how many there are and where they may have come from.
There are many types of microbial life that can survive in the extreme environment found close tot space. David Smith’s work is helping delineate just what is going on here and perhaps could find new forms of life. As well as help inform os about life on other planets.
Even collection of organisms from heights closer to Earth – here from the top of Mt. Bachelor in Oregon – can be useful. There were not many microbial organisms at that height and the bacteria were all Gram-positive.capable of forming spores, thus being able to survive.
MIST sounds like a very cool project and seems to indicate an emerging aspect of the Seattle area’s burgeoning aerospace center.