On August 21, a solar eclipse will pass across the United States, first darkening Oregon and creating a path of totality all the way to South Carolina over the course of a few hours. Everyone along this path will experience a few minutes of complete darkness along with the spectacular features of a total solar eclipse. The rest of the nation will experience a partial solar eclipse. Those not along the path of totality may feel like they are missing out, but NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project has a solution for that!
More than 50 high-altitude balloons will be launched during the solar eclipse 2017, each carrying a video camera to record and livestream the Moon’s shadow as it travels across the Earth’s surface. The Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE) is participating in NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, which is led by the Montana Space Grant Consortium. The LSU scientific balloon team is a leader in this effort, and will have the opportunity to launch their balloon from the Southern Illinois University (SIU) football stadium in Carbondale, IL, where the moon will completely eclipse the sun (totality).
Fun Fact: Carbondale is the crossroads of the 2017 and 2024 eclipses!
The eclipse ballooning effort by LaSPACE, or LaACES (Louisiana Aerospace Catalysts Experiences for Students), is led by LSU but also includes participants from Louisiana Tech University (LA Tech), McNeese State University (MSU), and Delgado Community College (DCC). Students from these other universities/colleges will be launching a second balloon in Carbondale to conduct scientific measurements such as presence of ultra violet radiation during the eclipse. Other payloads from LA Tech, MSU, and DCC selected for the second balloon will test the speed of sound and the solar constant. These universities/colleges, among others, participated in a competition this past May at the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, TX to determine their balloons' flight readiness. LSU’s balloon, part of the national balloon project to video the eclipse, will carry the camera to record the Moon’s shadow. This balloon demonstrates technological and engineering abilities.
Fun Fact: Each balloon carries multiple payloads, instruments or experiments, on a string hanging from the balloon. The balloon expands as it flies higher and higher. The system is designed such that the string is cut away at a set altitude, and the payloads return to the surface of the earth on a parachute. The balloon eventually "pops"!
The LSU eclipse weather balloon team includes faculty members Dr. Greg Guzik, Professor in LSU's Department of Physics & Astronomy and director of the LaSPACE and LaACES (Louisiana Aerospace Catalysts Experiences for Students) programs, and Dr. Dana Browne, Physics & Astronomy professor and LaSPACE Ballooning flight operations manager. The team also includes LSU staff and researchers Doug Granger, computer analyst in the Department of Physics & Astronomy and LA Space Ballooning ground station manager, and Colleen Fava, LaSpace program manager and ballooning communications and outreach manager.
The students on the eclipse balloon team include Physics & Astronomy senior Brad Landry, the student team lead for the project, and computer science senior Chris Shayer, the student software lead for the project. Anthony Finklin, a Physics & Astronomy senior, joins the team as the official LaSpace outreach and public education event curator.
The LaSpace ballooning effort, specifically LaACES, is an important program for workforce development and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. The students complete a full scientific design cycle, from conception to conducting the experiment.
We've asked the LaSPACE scientific ballooning team members to share their excitement about the upcoming eclipse and balloon launch!
LSU College of Science: What is your favorite fun fact about solar eclipses or this eclipse in 2017?
Guzik: We get to see the Sun’s “atmosphere” (the corona) which is several million degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun.
Browne: Usually, a given place on the earth has to wait a very long time (hundreds of years) between total solar eclipses. Carbondale, IL is going to get this total eclipse, and then we only have to wait seven more years (until 2024) for the next one.
Fava: I hope researchers are already thinking about follow up projects to study the effects of eclipses so close in time in the same geographic areas.
Shayer: The fact that we get to view the totality of the solar eclipse for free!
LSU College of Science: How did you get involved with scientific ballooning?
Guzik: Since the late 1980s, I’ve been involved in a number of large-scale scientific ballooning research projects, including spending four “summers” in Antarctica flying the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) balloon payload. I leveraged my experience over a decade ago to develop a small-scale student program which I formalized within the LaSPACE suite of programs as the Louisiana Aerospace Catalyst Experience for Students (LaACES). In addition to a steady stream of participation at our lead institution, LSU, we’ve implemented this program on campuses across the state.
Browne: I got an amateur radio license after Katrina. One of my colleagues, a former instructor on our staff, was also an amateur radio operator and was involved in the ballooning program. He invited me to go along [on a launch] and help track the balloon and recover it.
Learn more below about Dr. Browne’s role contribution to the team as an amateur radio operator.
Photo of LaSPACE Director Guzik and LSU students Brad Landry and Josh Collins recovering payloads after a test balloon launch in Palestine, TX. All the instruments "on board" still worked!
Granger: I needed a student job during college at LSU, so I signed up to work in Dr. Guzik's ATIC/LABEL group in 1994. ATIC was a large balloon scientific payload [the boxes or instruments that the balloon carries] that launched in Antarctica during the 1999/2000 launch season.
Landry: I joined the LaACES student ballooning program in 2014 based on the recommendation of a friend. The program I joined was only intended to last for one academic year, but after enjoying the program so much, I stuck around and have been a part of several scientific ballooning projects since.
Shayer: I first joined the LaACES student ballooning program at Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC) in 2014. The year-long program was a great learning experience. After transferring to LSU, I continued to participate in the program.
LSU College of Science: What is your role on the eclipse balloon project?
Landry: I am currently the student team lead of LSU’s student ballooning group. I mainly deal with the testing and preparation of our flight equipment, and the planning and coordination of our balloon launches. I also manage the student team so that we can stay on task to fulfill our mission goals. I help train and mentor the newer students, and serve as a first point of contact for troubleshooting before consulting with our faculty and staff advisers.
Shayer: I develop and maintain the ground station software. This software allows the ground station antenna to automatically track the weather balloon during the Eclipse flight.
Granger: My role on this payload is to manage the ground station and operate all of the video systems on this flight string [the string hanging from the balloon that carries the payloads].
Browne: We track the balloon by receiving radio transmissions from a GPS carried on it. The radio transmitter uses frequencies allotted to amateur radio operators. Also, we use amateur radios to communicate with each other while we are driving around trying to track and recover the balloon, because cell service is usually spotty [where the balloon flies]. I help the students in the project get amateur radio licenses, help keep the radios and radio beacons working, and help design radio beacons and antennas for the balloon payloads.
Finklin: I am charged with running the outreach and educational aspects of the ballooning trip to Carbondale, which is a role I fulfill already for the statewide LaSPACE Mobile Astronomy Resource System, or MARS Truck, program. I did implement some Solar Eclipse curricula into this year’s outreach programming.
Fava: I’m wearing a number of hats for this project. I’m working on a few sub-projects of the National Solar Eclipse Ballooning Project. I helped develop template press releases for all 55 participating [balloon] teams, worked on a script for a promotional video now featured on the live stream website, and am working on the development of a social media strategy plan for participating teams on eclipse day. I’m also serving on the planning committee of the 2017 Academic High-Altitude Conference (AHAC), the annual conference of the Stratospheric Ballooning Association (SBA). This year will feature a special focus on Solar Eclipse Ballooning projects. The conference will be in late October at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities in Minneapolis.
LSU College of Science: What are you most looking forward to about this eclipse and balloon launch?
Guzik: The completion of the balloon launch (aka August 22). This is an excellent and ambitious project with incredible implications for increasing student interest and public support for STEM. As such, it’s been a whole lot of work!
Granger: I am really looking forward to a successful flight. This has been a long road with a lot of work time invested. I can't wait to see video of the eclipse roll across the land as we record at 70,000+ ft.
Fava: I’m excited to see what the educational impact is. This National Eclipse Ballooning Project that Angela Des Jardin (director of Montana Space Grant) conceived of has remarkable implications for both public science education and recruitment of students into space-related STEM fields. The scope of the project is unprecedented. The potential of the technology (to livestream the moon’s shadow across the path of totality) is revolutionary. At the end of the day, though, it’s the small-scale exposure to the scientific and engineering design process that really blows me away. I’m honored to be in service to this work.
Landry: I am very much looking forward to viewing a total solar eclipse in person. This is an opportunity that I never thought I would have.
Browne: I saw one with my father in March of 1970, when I was a teenager. I get to see another one now with my own family.
Don’t miss out on this phenomenal science event occurring across the United States! Come SAFELY view the eclipse from the LSU Parade Grounds on August 21 from 12 - 2 p.m.! In Baton Rouge, we will experience approximately 75% eclipsing of the sun, with the darkest point occurring around 1:30 p.m.