Czech scientists conduct experiments in the stratosphere to help astronauts

Photo: Mendel University of Brno

Scientists from the Institute of Chemistry and Biochemistry (ICHB) of Mendel University in Brno have tested microalgae and bacteria in the stratosphere. Their findings could be used in the space industry, as microalgae could be part of the astronauts’ diet in orbit and on long-term missions to other planets or in conventional agriculture to enhance the resilience of crops.

In October, Czech scientists sent two helium-filled balloons into the stratosphere with samples from Partizánské, Slovakia, where legislation for the experiment was more superficial than in the Czech Republic.

“Conditions in the stratosphere are close to what we know in space. In particular, there is a high level of ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays, so it is interesting to get some living organisms or materials there and study how it affects them, “commented Libor Lenža from the Institute of Chemical Biology.

The balloons were sent up to 35 kilometers, roughly three times higher than where planes fly. They have a diameter of over two meters on the ground, but in the stratosphere, where pressure is minimal, their diameter increases to 15 meters. It takes an hour and a half for the balloon to reach the desired altitude so that it can stay in extreme conditions for only about an hour. After landing, the team on the spot hands over the samples to the laboratory, where scientists can evaluate them.

On the first flight, scientists took 120,000 samples of records, and on the second flight, 150,000. They conducted several sets of experiments. One looked at how extreme conditions affect microalgae viability and reproduction, and another tested how well manganese nanoparticles can protect algae from stress. When stressed, algae need to save energy and, to achieve that, they go into a resting state while stopping growth and cell division functions. 

Such research flights are not new, but their technical details become more advanced with each new mission. “We have made significant progress in controlling the spacecraft, although there are still minor bugs to be solved,” a scientist from the team stated. 

“The balloons are partially steerable. On one of the flights, we had a test of an additional parachute to help in the landing. But in the end, we didn’t need it because everything worked like clockwork. In the past, we have also searched for landing modules in eastern Slovakia, depending on the direction and speed of the winds, “he added.