NASA, students to study eclipse with high-altitude balloons

By Brooks Hays   |   Aug. 16, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Not everyone will be watching next week's eclipse from ground level. As part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project, some 50 high-altitude balloons launched from 20 locations will offer a view of the phenomenon from the edge of space.

For those in the path of Monday's total solar eclipse, the star attraction will be skyward. Necks will be craned as moon's path intercepts the sun and casts a shadow stretching 70 miles across.

Thanks to the cameras and live-streaming technology installed on most of the balloons' payloads, online viewers will be able to look down on the eclipse.

"The focus of the live stream will really be on the shadow," said Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University.

The project, which includes dozens of student research teams from colleges and universities across the country, is Jardins' brainchild.

Helium will carry the balloons to an altitude of 100,000 feet, but the research teams will time their launches so the balloons are between 70,000 and 80,000 feet when the eclipse starts.

"From that perspective you see the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space," Jardins said. "You can see up to 200 miles in any direction."

For those on the ground, the total solar eclipse will last just under 3 minutes. But from the stratosphere, the spectacle will last significantly longer.

"We'll be able to see the shadow coming for about 10 minutes before the full eclipse, and see it moving away for about 10 minutes after," Jardins said.

Jardins is the director of BOREALIS, a high-altitude balloon launching program organized under the Montana Space Grant Consortium, which includes several Montana schools and is one of 52 consortiums in the national Space Grant network.

In 1989, NASA established the Space Grant program as a way to connect colleges and universities around the country with the space agency's aeronautics and space research projects. Today, there are consortiums in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

"It was really NASA's Space Grant network that allowed this grass-roots effort to grow and come into being," Jardins says.

Last summer, teams of students, researchers and faculty from all over the country came to Montana State University -- home to one of the country's most active and respected balloon-launching programs -- to learn about the eclipse project.

With the help of the Jardins and her colleagues at BOREALIS, teams designed and built their balloons and payloads, which were then shipped back to their respective colleges and universities. Teams have spent the last year perfecting their balloons and preparing for next week's launch.

In recent weeks, teams have practiced launching balloons and retrieving their payloads. Because the balloons rise at a relatively constant rate, scientists know where they will be and when. But weather is still a factor. Researchers need to have a good idea of where their parachuting payloads will land, if they want to find their instruments and recorded data.

Monday's launch will feature two main types of balloons. The larger of the two will feature a variety of cameras. In addition to offering live streaming, these balloons will also capture high-definition still photographs, as well as 360-degree panoramas.

Teams will also launch weather balloons, the same type used by the National Weather Service. These smaller balloons, which won't travel quite as high, will be tasked with recording all sorts of atmospheric data before, during and after the eclipse.

"These balloons will help us understand how the eclipse affects the atmosphere as the shadow moves across, which we don't know a lot about," Jardins said. "The test case will teach us more about the atmosphere in general."

Atmospheric data will be organized and analyzed by student research teams as well as scientists from NASA and NOAA.

NASA scientists are also excited about the larger balloons. Their payloads will carry strips of metal with bacteria cultures. Researchers are keen to understand whether or not microbes that hitch a ride to the Red Planet on Martian rovers can survive conditions on the alien planet. As the sky is darkened by the eclipse, the stratosphere's cold, thin air -- with just the right amount of ultraviolet radiation -- will resemble conditions on Mars.

While the dozens of participating teams are spread out from Maine to New Mexico, all of them will be traveling to a launch site along the path of totality. The solar eclipse will only be experienced as a total eclipse along a coast-to-coast path arcing from South Carolina across the heart of the country and the Rockies to the coast of Oregon.

The path of totality will miss Montana, so several teams from the state will travel south next week. They'll be gathered in a field near a small airport in Rexburg, Idaho.

"There are going to be 50 to 100 people camping at the launch site," said Darci Collins, a student on the MSU Eclipse Ballooning team. "A lot of the interns are bringing plus ones."

For all the students and teachers present from the balloon-launching action, many more who helped make the project possible will be watching online. Each of the teams have relied on the work of dozens of students over the course of the last year.

"I got involved in the project my senior year at Central Washington University," said Shellbie Liberty, who graduated at the beginning of the summer. "My work focused more on design and construction of the weather balloon payload box and rotating camera."

In addition to the obvious thrill of such a research opportunity, many participating students see the project as a chance to learn skills useful to their future careers.

"I have career aspirations in planetary science," Liberty said. "As a mechanical engineer, I hope to eventually work in the aerospace industry."

Collins, who became involved with the Montana State team through a summer research grant offering through the National Science Foundation, also wants to pursue a career in aeronautics.

"I would like go into some kind of astronomy research career field," Montana State team member Katie Lee said.

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