Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Microbes from Earth could temporarily survive on Mars, according to a new study by scientists at NASA and Germany's space agency.
The discovery, detailed Monday in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, is promising news for researchers working on the development of sustainable biological life support systems that astronauts will need to produce their own food and oxygen on the Red Planet.
"We successfully tested a new way of exposing bacteria and fungi to Mars-like conditions by using a scientific balloon to fly our experimental equipment up to Earth's stratosphere," joint first study author Marta Filipa Cortesão said in a press release.
"Some microbes, in particular spores from the black mold fungus, were able to survive the trip, even when exposed to very high UV radiation," said Cortesão, a scientist with the German Aerospace Center.
Though microbes could help astronauts power sustainable biological life support systems, microbial contamination could also complicate the search for extraterrestrial life.
"With crewed long-term missions to Mars, we need to know how human-associated microorganisms would survive on the Red Planet, as some may pose a health risk to astronauts," said joint first author Katharina Siems.
"In addition, some microbes could be invaluable for space exploration. They could help us produce food and material supplies independently from Earth, which will be crucial when far away from home," said Siems, also a scientist at the German Aerospace Center.
On Earth's surface, it's difficult to replicate some of the environmental conditions found in the surface of Mars. However, inside Earth's middle stratosphere, just above the ozone layer, the conditions are remarkably Mars-like.
For the new experiments, researchers launched microbes into Earth's atmosphere inside a special container called the MARSBOx, short for Microbes in Atmosphere for Radiation, Survival and Biological Outcomes.
Earlier this month, researchers reported a similar device that researchers used to successfully grow cyanobacteria under Martian-like conditions using only water, gases and nutrients available on the Red Planet.
Scientists filled the MARSBOx with a mixture of gases mimicking the Martian atmosphere. Mars-like atmospheric pressures were maintained inside the payload throughout the trip.
"The box carried two sample layers, with the bottom layer shielded from radiation," Cortesão said. "This allowed us to separate the effects of radiation from the other tested conditions: desiccation, atmosphere and temperature fluctuation during the flight. The top layer samples were exposed to more than a thousand times more UV radiation than levels that can cause sunburn on our skin."
Not all the microbes survived the trip, but researchers were able to revive the black mold Aspergillus niger after the MARSBOx returned to Earth's surface.
"Microorganisms are closely-connected to us; our body, our food, our environment, so it is impossible to rule them out of space travel," Siems said.
"Using good analogies for the Martian environment, such as the MARSBOx balloon mission to the stratosphere, is a really important way to help us explore all the implications of space travel on microbial life and how we can drive this knowledge towards amazing space discoveries," Siems said.