Astronomical science – live and in living color: that’s what a group of College of Charleston faculty, students and recent alumni will offer the masses as the Palmetto State goes dark on Aug. 21, 2017, during the first total solar eclipse to be visible across the United States in nearly a century.
Ashley Turner, Annie Johnson ’17 and Logan Avera ’17 monitor images from the high-altitude balloon during a test launch in June.
Six students and recent grads along with two faculty members will be among more than 50 teams from across the country participating in NASA’s Space Grant Ballooning Project, which will broadcast the first-ever live-streaming video footage of an eclipse from cameras dangling from high altitude balloons in the stratosphere.
Cassandra Runyon, a geology professor and director of the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium, based at the College, and Cyndi Hall, director of the College’s Lowcountry Hall of Science and Math, are leading the College’s ballooning team as part of the Carolina Solar Eclipse Initiative, a collaboration between the North and South Carolina space grant consortia to promote the eclipse.
“The Carolina Solar Eclipse Initiative, specifically the high altitude ballooning program, has provided undergraduate and high school students with a unique opportunity to become part of a nationwide education initiative,” says Hall. “The students have been in control from the onset, defining and taking on various roles that will provide them a skillset needed in any twenty-first century career field.”
On the day of the eclipse, teams from Oregon to South Carolina will launch high altitude balloons 80,000 to 100,000 feet in the air where video cameras will capture footage of the moon’s shadow as it eclipses the sun along a path from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast Atlantic coast. The video will be streamed live at streameclipse.com. NASA TV will also broadcast portions of the video feed.
Logan Avera ’17 adjusts the directional controls for the ground station antenna, which receives signals from a tiny computer attached to the balloon.
Members of the Cougar’s ballooning team will launch a balloon from a Coast Guard vessel about five miles off the coast of Charleston. Meanwhile, other students and alums will be stationed atop Fort Moultrie’s Visitor Center on Sullivan’s Island where they will track the balloon’s location, monitor the video feed and provide information to curious spectators.
“I am most excited to see the whole nationwide project come together,” says geology major and ballooning team member Ashley Turner. “This ballooning initiative is something new and creative that has never been done before. We will be viewing this solar eclipse in an entirely new way and tracking it as it sweeps across the nation.”
CofC’s ballooning team has been preparing for the eclipse for more than a year. Last summer Logan Avera ’17 and senior Sam Fink, both geology majors, traveled to Montana State University to attend a week-long training seminar through the Montana Space Grant Consortium where they learned how to launch high altitude balloons, as well as operate GPS software and remote video equipment.
“This eclipse has provided an unimaginable catalyst for me to begin learning more about high altitude ballooning, computers and long range networking,” says Fink, who is a student leader for CofC’s ballooning team. “I am so thankful for this opportunity because the things I have already learned from it are countless; from filling a weather balloon on a rocking boat to programming basic computers.”
Robert Moody inspects a tiny computer, called a raspberry pi, before attaching it to the balloon during a June test launch. (Photos by Amanda Kerr)
The students have had to learn a range of skills from engineering design, to coding, to electronics as part of the project. They’ve also had to understand the structure of the balloon payload design to accommodate several experiments that will launch along with the video camera, including a 360-degree video camera and an astrobiology experiment from NASA Ames Research Center.
“This project provides our students with a unique opportunity to work together to overcome a multitude of challenges, from building the camera systems and ground tracking station to working together and communicating as a team,” says Runyon.
Avera adds, “To me, personally, this project is the most important thing happening over the last year of my life because I’ve put so much time into it. And on Aug. 21, when the eclipse happens, we will be a part of history, being among the group of people to help make this project happen.”