High Altitude Balloons Have Mixed Success Giving View Of Eclipse From Near Space
The solar eclipse is in the books, but the scientific analysis goes on. Teams of high school and college students scrambled Monday afternoon to locate and recover cameras and experimental payloads they launched to the edge of space during the eclipse.
Fifty-five student teams sponsored by NASA launched high altitude weather balloons to livestream the eclipse from coast to coast.
Technology glitches or overloaded radio traffic foiled the best-laid plans by most of the teams from the Northwest to share a live view from 60,000 to more than 100,000 feet high.
Masters student Francis Bartholomew said their helium-filled balloon drifted through the eclipse path from Corvallis.
"My favorite images are always the ones where the camera is slowly panning around and we're watching the shadow come in on the ocean,” Bartholomew said.
Also managing to beam down video of the eclipse from way up high were teams from North Medford High School and from Central Washington University. They launched from Dayville and Culver in central Oregon, respectively.
The live video streaming camera slung beneath North Medford's balloon initially spun around wildly showing pixelated glimpses of sky and earth. As the balloon rose higher in the atmosphere, the camera stabilized and the curvature of the earth could be seen as a temporary darkness fell over Oregon.
Bartholomew said maintaining a wireless link to a high altitude balloon is an engineering challenge.
"The connection between the ground station and the payload that was way up high was not as stable and reliable as a network cable or whatever," Bartholomew said. "But it was good enough that periodically we would get some good, clear footage for a few seconds before the tracking system had to kind of re-home itself."
Participants in the Eclipse Ballooning Project launched their balloons about an hour before the peak of the eclipse. The camera systems onboard were designed to record as well as livestream the eclipse.
"I'm excited that this was the first time that anyone has ever livestreamed aerial video of a total solar eclipse using high-altitude balloons," said Angela Des Jardins, an assistant research professor at Montana State University. She first proposed the national collaboration in 2014.
"It was also the first time that there has been such a large-scale coordinated launch of high-altitude balloons from coast-to-coast,” she said in a statement Monday. "One of the exciting things now is that the teams will retrieve their payloads and upload the video and photos."
The MSU team launched multiple balloons from eastern Idaho. One of them carried a specialized infrared camera for capturing images of the sun’s atmosphere as part of a student-led experiment.
Other balloons in the nationwide project carried bacterial samples for a planetary science experiment run by NASA. During the eclipse the upper part of the Earth's stratosphere resembled the surface of Mars with very rarified air, very cold temperatures and less of the sun's ultraviolet rays than usual due to the shielding effect of the moon.
Full list of Northwest teams' high altitude balloon launch sites:
- North Medford High School "Oregon Tornadoes" launched from Dayville, Oregon, in Grant County.
- University of Washington NASA Space Grant team launched from Warm Springs Indian Reservation with participation from younger students from multiple Northwest tribes.
- Culver High School team, Tigard High School Technology Team and CWU Wildcat Near Space Observation Team launched from Culver, Oregon High School to 100,000 feet.
- Portland State University team launched from Corvallis, Oregon.
- Alaska Space Grant and Mt. Edgecumbe High School launched from Corvallis, Oregon after originally targeting Crooked River, in central Oregon.
- Oregon Tech Wilsonville GRASP team was supposed to launch from Detroit Lake, Oregon, but due to wildfire restrictions, they moved to Corvallis with the PSU and Alaska teams.
- Silverton High School team launched from Silverton, Oregon.
- Linn-Benton Community College team launched from OSU research ship at sea off the Oregon Coast.
- NevadaSat team launched from Lime, Oregon to 100,000 feet.
- The Near Space Engineering club from Moscow High School launched from Weiser High School, Idaho.
- Montana State University launched from the Camas National Wildlife Refuge near Hamer, Idaho.
- University of Southern California team launched from Arco, Idaho.
- Montana and North Dakota Space Grant consortium launched from Rexburg Airport, Idaho.
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