Hunting for High Life: What Lives in Earth’s Stratosphere?

The Moon photographed through the layers of the atmosphere from the ISS in December 2003 (NASA/JSC)

What lives at the 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.

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.

“Life surviving at high altitudes challenges our notion of the biosphere boundary.”

– David Smith, Biologist, University of Washington in Seattle

Although reports of microorganisms existing as high as 77 km have been around since the 1930s, Smith doubts the validity of some of the old data… the microbes could have been brought up by the research vehicles themselves.

“Almost no controls for sterilization are reported in the papers,” he said.

But while some researchers have suggested that the microbes could have come from outer space, Smith thinks they are terrestrial in origin. Most of the microbes discovered so far are bacterial spores — extremely hardy organisms that can form a protective shell around themselves and thus survive the low temperatures, dry conditions and high levels of radiation found in the stratosphere. Dust storms or hurricanes could presumably deliver the bacteria into the atmosphere where they form spores and are transported across the globe.

If they land in a suitable environment they have the ability to reanimate themselves, continuing to survive and multiply.

Although collecting these high-flying organisms is difficult, Smith is confident that this research will show how such basic life can travel long distances and survive even the harshest environments — not only on Earth but possibly on other worlds as well, such as the dessicated soil of  Mars.

“We still have no idea where to draw the altitude boundary of the biosphere,” said Smith. This research will “address how long life can potentially remain in the stratosphere and what sorts of mutations it may inherit while aloft.”

Read more on Michael Schirber’s article for Astrobiology Magazine here, and watch David Smith’s seminar “The High Life: Airborne Microbes on the Edge of Space” held May 2012 at the University of Washington below:

Inset images – Top: layers of the atmosphere, via the Smithsonian/NMNH. Bottom: Scanning electron microscope image of atmospheric bacterial spores collected from Mt. Bachelor Observatory (NASA/KSC)

How Plasma Technology From Space Will Save Our Lives


It might sound obvious to anyone who’s ever played a video game in the past thirty years, but plasma has been found to be very effective at destroying some truly dangerous beasts. Except in this case, the battlefields aren’t space bases, they’re hospitals… and the creatures aren’t CGI alien monsters, they’re very real — and very dangerous — bacteria right here on Earth.

Scarier than any alien: 20,000x magnification of drug-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria (CDC)

Long-running experiments performed aboard the International Space Station have been instrumental in the development of plasma-based tools that can be used to kill bacteria in hospitals — especially potentially deadly strains of Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.

MRSA infections can occur in people who have undergone surgery or other invasive hospital procedures, or have weakened immune systems and are exposed to the bacteria in a hospital or other health care environment. A form of staph that’s become resistant to many antibiotics, MRSA is notoriously difficult to treat, easily transmitted — both in and out of hospitals — and deadly.

Various strains of MRSA infections have been found to be linked to mortality rates ranging from 10% to 50%.

Dr. Gregor Morfill, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, has been researching the antimicrobial abilities of plasma in experiments running aboard the ISS since 2001. What he and his team have found is that cold plasma can effectively sanitize skin and surfaces, getting into cracks and crevices that soap and even UV light cannot. Even though bacteria like staphylococcus are constantly evolving resistances to medications, they wither under a barrage of plasma.

Eventually, Dr. Morfill’s research, funded by ESA, helped with the creation of a working prototype that could be used in hospitals — literally a plasma weapon for fighting microbes.

It's no BFG, but it can kill flesh-eating monsters in mass quantities (Photo: Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics)

This is yet another example of “trickle-down” technology developed in space. Over two dozen astronauts and cosmonauts have worked on the research aboard the ISS over the past decade, and one day you may have cold plasma disinfecting devices in your home, cleaning your toothbrushes and countertops.

In addition the technology could be used to clean exploration spacecraft, preventing contamination of other worlds with Earthly organisms.

“It has many practical applications, from hand hygiene to food hygiene, disinfection of medical instruments, personal hygiene, even dentistry,” said Dr. Morfill. “This could be used in many, many fields.”

Bacteria, prepare to get fragged.

News source: ScienceDaily. Top Doom3 image from

Yum! Dirty fingers! (MPE)

On The Hunt For High-Altitude Microorganisms


The United States Rocket Academy has announced an open call for entries in its High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, a citizen science project that will attempt to collect samples of microbes that may be lurking in Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of space.

Earth’s biosphere has been discovered to extend much higher than once thought — up to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) above the planet’s surface. Any microorganisms present at these high altitudes could be subject to the mutating effects of increased radiation and transported around the globe in a sort of pathogenic jet-stream.

What sort of microbes may exist at the upper reaches of the atmosphere?

Citizens in Space, a project run by the U.S. Rocket Academy, is offering a $10,000 prize for the development of an open-source and replicable  collection device that could successfully retrieve samples of high-altitude microorganisms, and could fly as a payload aboard an XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

XCOR Aerospace is a private California-based company that has developed the Lynx, a reusable launch vehicle that has suborbital flight capabilities. Low-speed test flights are expected to commence later this year, with incremental testing to take place over the following months.

Any proposed microbe collection devices would have to fit within the parameters of the Lynx’s 2kg Aft Cowling Port payload capabilities — preferably a 10 x 10 x 20 cm CubeSat volume — and provide solutions for either its retraction (in the case of extended components) or retrieval (in the case of ejected hardware.)

The contest is open to any US resident or non-government team or organization, and submissions are due by February 13, 2013. The chosen design will fly on 10 contracted Lynx flights in late 2013 or early 2014, and possibly even future missions.

Find out more about the challenge on the Citizens in Space site here, and check out an animation of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft below: