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'Alien' Life Could Exist High in Earth's Atmosphere

Life on Earth shows up in surprising places. It's been found in high-temperature vents deep undersea and high in the air. But we're still trying to learn more about these so-called "extremophiles." Researchers are now pondering how well can life reproduce in these environments. Also, could microbes of this type be found on other worlds? In March, a group of University of Houston students — piggybacking on a payload with a prime mission to scope out auroras — will fly a high-altitude experiment from Alaska to see what microbes are in the high atmosphere, between 18 km and 50 km (11 miles and 31 miles) from the ground. The instrument, which looks almost like a small laundry hamper, pops open to collect what's in the atmosphere. Then, as the balloon descends, it shuts closed for researchers to analyze. Jamie Lehnen, a fourth-year student on the team, says this system could be less open to contamination than pumps and other complicated mechanisms that require servicing on Earth. But it's the first time her group has used it, so isn't sure how well it will function. If it does, however, she's interested in learning about how microbes will react under the stresses of living at high altitudes. "A lot of times, these microbes when they go up there, they shut down. They are not replicating and they are not metabolically active," she said. "I'm interested in how their stress response is similar to those back on Earth's surface."

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