Exploring Mars in low Earth orbit

In their quest to understand life’s potential beyond Earth, astrobiologists study how organisms might survive in numerous environments, from the surface of Mars to the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. For now, Earth is our only example of an inhabited planet, and studying the limits of habitability on Earth is a major component of astrobiology research. For this reason, scientists collect data from places on our planet where life is pushed to the absolute limits of adaptability, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, and from smoldering thermal vents to highly acidic rivers. But locations like the Antarctic Dry Valleys or deep-sea vents in the Pacific aren’t the only places in which astrobiologists study life as we know it. Low Earth orbit provides an opportunity to observe Earth-life in the harsh conditions of space.

In the early hours of July 24th, 2014, a new astrobiology experiment began its journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station (ISS). BIOMEX (Biology and Mars Experiment) launched onboard a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft and is one of four experiments that make up the EXPOSE-R2 facility, which will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS Zvezda module. Just six hours after launch, the cargo ship successfully docked with the ISS.

Life on the Station – BIOMEX contains twelve different experimental packages that are designed to help determine life’s potential on Mars. The Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is coordinating BIOMEX, but the project involves 25 participating institutions from around the world. BIOMEX contains numerous chambers that are filled with biomolecules and organisms that include bacteria, archaea, algae, fungi, lichens and mosses. Replicate samples spread across the compartments are subjected to a range of environmental conditions. Some samples of each biomolecule or organism are embedded in a simulant Mars soil (ranging from just a single layer of soil to multiple layers), and other samples are left on their own to face the space environment without protection. Via Exploring Mars in low Earth orbit.

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