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Image: Robot autopsy at Birmingham Open Media. Photo: Ian Jukes Image: Robot autopsy at Birmingham Open Media. Photo: Ian Jukes

Ingenious and Fearless Companions

High Altitude Biospecting

This project artistically explores the search for life at the edge of space, the excitement of a rocket launch; the horror of a failed parachute; the despair of a crushed robot; and the pleasure and pain of curiosity driven research.

It chronicles the work of the High Altitude Biospecting (HAB) team through a series of installations, first exhibited at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) in April 2016, incorporating video-mapped archive films and sculpturally altered relics, such as weather balloons, environmental samples from the Black Rock Desert, extremophile bacteria, and the remains of the robot wrecked by its fall into the Black Rock Desert which was autopsied in a unique performance. The HAB team comprises Dr Melissa Grant, Dr Oliver de Peyer, Dr Paul Shepherd, Alex May, Kira O’Reilly, and Anna Dumitriu.

Ingenious and Fearless Companions explores the adventure of curiosity-driven research through a quest to find microscopic life in space. The title is taken from a letter from French poet Victor Hugo to chemist and aeronaut Gaston Tissandier (1869), on the future of ‘air navigation’ to our hybrid ways of working across science and art. It is also a reference to the bacteria that travel into space inside and on the bodies of astronauts and spacecraft, as well as the extremophile bacteria that the HAB team have been seeking in the upper atmosphere.

The High Altitude Bioprospecting team first began to form in 2008 when de Peyer, Shepherd and Grant met at a NESTA event, called Crucible, designed to bring together innovative early career researchers across disciplines to solve complex challenges. At the end of the year-long programme participants were encouraged to put together bids for research seed-funding. Having listened to de Peyer’s fervent desire to build remotely operated robots, the group began to wonder what would be the best challenge to tackle and de Peyer immediately replied that he wanted to try to detect microbes in the stratosphere! He had previously worked as an intern at NASA Ames with Professor Lynn J Rothschild and was keen to expand this research. Their funding application was successful and they began the design of a helium-balloon mounted device to test for microbes in the skies above the UK. Uniquely, in comparison to other efforts in the field, they aimed to detect the microbes in-situ, that is, whilst in flight, rather than the more usual approach of testing once samples were returned to the ground. In-situ testing would eliminate some of the risks of contamination, which can lead to ‘false positives’ where any microbes detected could have come from their trip from the ground to the testing lab.

Why would anyone want to do this? There was the possibility that any microbes they find might have useful properties that could be exploited. For example any microbes which have evolved mechanisms to defend themselves from the strong ultra-violet sun rays could be adapted to make strong sunscreens for humans. Another motivation was that the device itself, once proven, could be modified to detect pathogens remotely in places to dangerous for humans.

Shortly after the design process began, de Peyer received a call to say there was going to be a week of amateur rocket launches in the USA in the summer of 2010. Could they have their device ready to fly on a rocket in 6 months? Well of course the team said ‘yes’! The race was on to create the device, figure out how to control it, develop biological techniques to detect microbes in situ, and get on with their day jobs. At that time, Kira O’Reilly was artist in residence in the same lab as Grant, and through this connection Anna Dumitriu came to work in the lab to create an art intervention by trying to communicate with microbes in the atmosphere using homoserine lactone hormone, building on a previous project where she communicated with the bacteria of the Earth. And so, the wider art-science collaboration was born, with digital artist Alex May then joining the group shortly after.

The second half of the story takes place in the Black Rock Desert (Nevada, USA), where de Peyer, Shepherd and Grant ventured with Rachel Brazil from NESTA, and two A-level students, Rainbow Lo and Joe Campion. They worked with researchers from NASA Ames research centre and with ‘The Rocket Mavericks’, a team of well-funded rocket enthusiasts who allowed HAB to fly on one of their rockets. Over the course of the ten-day trip the team experienced the extreme heat and dust of the desert each day and sleeping under the Milky Way every night.

The finished HAB device was first tested on a weather balloon, reaching 28km above the surface of the desert. After a few false starts (and nearly setting the HAB device on fire), on the 19th July at 3pm it was time to launch the HAB device on a rocket. Given the rush to reach this point it was an incredible feeling for the team to strap their hopes onto a small, homemade, metal and plastic rocket and launch them towards the stratosphere. Forty two seconds after the rocket left the surface of the desert it reached its peak at 8km and began to return to Earth. However, in the haste to get ready in time for the launch window, the rocket’s parachute had been packed incorrectly, and was missing its smaller ‘drogue’ parachute used to drag out the main parachute. This meant that the rocket plummeted to the ground largely unhindered, with its torn and tattered main parachute streaming behind and providing very little drag. The HAB device met its demise as the rocket’s nose-cone was buried into the ground and HAB itself was squashed against the rocket casing by its more heavy robust components (batteries and relays). The official recorded time of death was 10.02am on 22nd July 2010, when the team finally found time, and sufficient motivation, to test any of the remaining electronics to see if HAB’s data could be recovered.

Despite setbacks the team’s excitement about their dream to sample bacteria that genuinely comes from the edge of space has not wavered and the next HAB mission is now in development using the latest technologies such as 3D printers, robotics, rocket science, DIY biology and cutting edge DNA analysis tools.