Halobacteria Change Color When They Touch Space

June 13, 2019: Picture this: An astronaut climbs aboard his spacecraft and blasts off from Earth. At the apex of the flight, he experiences something strange. Weightlessness? Space sickness? No. He changes color! This doesn’t happen to human astronauts, but it does happen to halobacteria, an extreme-loving microbe from Earth that might be able to live on Mars.

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In recent weeks, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been flying halobacteria to the stratosphere. Why? To see if the salt-loving microbes might be able to survive on the Red Planet. The stratosphere is a good place to find out because conditions in Earth’s stratosphere are remarkably similar to conditions on the surface of Mars.

The quick answer is YES. Halobacteria do survive–for brief trips, at least. Halobacteria that we launch into the stratosphere come back alive a few hours later, and we can easily culture them in an incubator.

But they don’t come back unchanged. We find that halobacteria color-shift during their trip to the edge of space. On Earth, they’re pink. When they reach the stratosphere, they turn yellow–and they remain yellow even after they return to the ground. Just by looking at the color of a sample, we can tell if it has been to the stratosphere.

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The many colors of halobacteria. The yellow varieties have all flown to the stratosphere. The pinkest forms are descendents of the yellows.

Back in the lab, something even more interesting happens. When we culture the “space-traveling” yellow halobacteria, allowing them to feed and multiply, their descendants turn pink again! The descendants undo the effects of the balloon flight, resetting themselves for another trip.

What’s happening? The answer involves bacteriorhodopsin.

Bacteriorhodopsin is a protein used by halobacteria to help feed themselves When food sources become scarce, halobacteria photosynthesize sunlight for energy. Unlike plants, however, they don’t use green chlorophyll. Halobacteria use purple bacteriorhodopsin.

0_yellowpinkBacteriorhodopsin has two stable forms–a purple form and a yellow form, each with a different shape. During photosynthesis, bacteriorhodopsin toggles back and forth between these forms, blinking yellow and purple. Because of this color-shifting ability, technologists have long been interested in using bacteriorhodopsin as a kind of “electronic ink” in tablets and smart phones.

When we launch halobacteria to the stratosphere, the microbes turn yellow–and stay yellow. They stop cycling back to their purple state as they would normally do during photosynthesis. Perhaps UV rays in the stratosphere denature the bacteriorhodopsin proteins. Denaturing means they lose their shape, permanently changing their color.

Whatever causes the color change, the descendants of flown halobacteria put their proteins back together again–ready for more trips to space.

We’re preparing to fly a batch of the descendants to see if they are even tougher than their predecessors. Stay tuned

 

Record-Setting Noctilucent Clouds

June 11, 2019: On June 8th and 9th, many people who have never previously heard of “noctilucent clouds” (NLCs) found themselves eagerly taking pictures of them–from moving cars, through city lights, using cell phones and iPads. “I have never seen clouds like this before!” says Tucker Shannon, who took this picture from Corvallis, Oregon:

“I heard that they may have been seeded by meteoroids,” says Shannon.

That’s correct. NLCs are Earth’s highest clouds. Seeded by meteoroids, they float at the edge of space more than 80 km above the planet’s surface. The clouds are very cold and filled with tiny ice crystals. When sunbeams hit those crystals, they glow electric-blue.

Noctilucent clouds used to be a polar phenomenon. In recent years, however, researchers have noticed their electric-blue forms creeping south. Is it climate change? Or the solar cycle? No one knows for sure.

This past weekend, even veteran observers were stunned by the clouds’ intensity and southern reach. At one point, they were visible in Freedom, Oklahoma (latitude +36.7 N). As far as we know, that is the lowest latitude sighting ever. Other notable low-latitude sightings include San Francisco, California, and the Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.

Still images of NLCs capture only a fraction of their magic. These small videos recorded by Keven Lapp outside Edmonton, Alberta, show their hypnotic fine-structured rippling motions:

“This was one of the largest NLCs that I’ve ever seen,” says Lapp. “The time lapse was taken between 2:40 AM and 3:24 AM local time.”

At present, no one can predict exactly when these noctilucent clouds will re-appear. Recent events suggest that even mid-latitude observers should be alert. Observing tips: Look west 30 to 60 minutes after sunset when the sun has dipped below the horizon. If you see luminous blue-white tendrils spreading across the sky, you may have spotted a noctilucent cloud.

Realtime Noctilucent Cloud Photo Gallery
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June is the Best Month for Daytime Meteor Showers

June 5, 2019: On June 30, 1908, in broad daylight, a meteoroid hurtled out of the blue sky over Russia’s Tunguska river and exploded, leveling a forest. The event, which researchers are still studying today, kickstarting a new field of astronomy: Daytime meteor showers1.

Most people don’t know it, but some of the strongest meteor showers of the year happen when the sun is up. In fact, one of them is underway now. Today’s sky map from Canada’s Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR) in western Ontario shows a hot spot in the constellation Aries only 20 degrees from the sun.

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Yes, this picture is real. It shows a daylight fireball over the Tetons behind Jackson Lake, Wyoming, in the summer of 1972.  Credit & Copyright: James M. Baker

“These are Arietid meteors, and they peak every year in early June as Earth passes through a debris stream linked to the unusual comet 96P/Machholz,” says professor Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario. “At their peak on June 7th, we expect our radar to detect one Arietid every 20 seconds. This makes them the 5th strongest radar shower of the year.”

In fact, people can see daylight meteors–a few at least. The trick is to look just before dawn when the shower’s radiant is barely above the horizon and the sun is barely below.

“The Arietids an observer would see before dawn are quite impressive as they are all Earthgrazers, skimming the atmosphere almost horizontally overhead,” notes Brown. “Earthgrazers tend to be slow and very bright.”

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It turns out that June is the best month of the year for daytime meteor showers. When the Arietids subside, another daytime shower will take over: The zeta Perseids peak on June 13th. And then another: The beta Taurids on June 29th.

The beta Taurids are particularly interesting because researchers suspect it may be responsible for the Tunguska explosion of 1908. This June the Taurid debris swarm will make its closest approach to Earth since 1975. Many astronomers, including Brown, will use large telescopes to search for signs of hazardous objects as the swarm passes by.

Stay tuned for updates.

End note: (1) Tunguska was a dramatic example of a daytime meteor. It took 30+ years after the explosion, however, for the field of daytime meteor studies to gain its footing. Brown explains: “The first daytime showers were observed and recognized by  astronomers at Jodrell Bank shortly after World War II, really kickstarting the field. As early as 1940, studies of the orbit of the nighttime Taurids suggested the stream should intersect the Earth during the day in June. At that time, predictions were made by Fred Whipple of a daytime component to the Taurid stream in June (the Beta Taurids/Zeta Perseids). In the 1970s, the peak date for the Beta Taurids (about June 30) and the radiant location were matched by Lubor Kresak to the Tunguska fireball–at which time he posited a link between the Beta Taurids and Tunguska.”