Student Research: Searching for Signs of Life in the Upper Atmosphere

High Altitude Student Platform Flight Enables UH Student Research Team

This fall, a group of University of Houston undergraduates launched a research balloon from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, searching for signs of life in the upper atmosphere. This flight was part of the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) program, administered by the NASA Balloon Program Office and the Louisiana Space Consortium.

HASP Research Balloon Launch
Students watching as the HASP research balloon launches, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Photo credit: Dr. T. Gregory Guzik, Director Louisiana Space Grant Consortium

For the HASP program, student teams must submit proposals, which include design specifications, as well as research protocols. If selected, their equipment is placed aboard a research balloon for a 15-to-20-hour flight reaching an altitude of 36 kilometers, or 22 miles. This is the second year in a row a UH team was selected.

This year’s team included undergraduate students Fre’etta Brooks, Samuel Garcia, Reed Masek, Steven Oliver, Jimish Patel, Kevin Portillo and Andrew Walker. Assistant professor of physics Andrew Renshaw and instructional professor of biology Donna Pattison served as faculty advisors.

HASP Student Team
HASP student team, pictured with the equipment they designed and built.

“Watching all of this come together has been amazing,” said Garcia, who was part of the original team that started this project two years ago. “We all created this.”

Extremophiles: Microorganisms that Survive Extreme Conditions

Their research objective was to search for the presence of extremophiles in the upper atmosphere. Extremophiles are organisms with the ability to survive under extreme conditions. Organisms have been found in some of the most remote places imaginable, from the scorching, sulfurous waters of hot springs to the intense pressure of the world’s deepest ocean trenches.

For microorganisms to survive in the upper atmosphere, they face an extremely cold, dry, low-pressure environment, as well as radiation from ultraviolet light and cosmic rays. Although the presence of microorganisms in the upper atmosphere has been known for a while, very little is known about how they can survive these conditions.

Sending a crewed mission to Mars means a possibility of extremophiles causing inter-planetary contamination, should they prove capable of surviving in the cold, dry, low-pressure Martian environment.

Designing Equipment to Collect Microorganisms in the Upper Atmosphere

For the flight, students designed and built a piece of equipment capable of collecting and preserving microorganisms during the high-altitude balloon flight.

“This built a lot of skills,” Walker said. “You have to go through every step of the scientific process, from getting funding to collaborating during design and construction.”

This year’s flight built upon previous accomplishments, with improved radiation detection, as well as increased controls.

“We included more controls for background contamination,” Brooks said.

These controls help rule out bacteria that might have been picked up during assembly or transit, rather than collected in the upper atmosphere.

Now that the flight is over, students analyze the collected samples and begin plans for next year.

“This project promotes interdisciplinary collaboration and professional scientific development,” Masek said.

Recruitment for the next year has already begun. Interested students should contact Dr. Andrew Renshaw ( for further information about how to get involved with the next mission.

- Rachel Fairbank, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics