When day turned to night on August 21, 2017, LSU College of Science students were ready to fly. LSU Geology graduate student Nicki Button got an amazing first-hand experience viewing the 2017 solar eclipse with LSU’s Solar Eclipse Balloon team in Carbondale, IL. Nicki joined LaSPACE balloon teams in Carbondale as they prepared to launch two weather balloons to record the moon’s shadow traveling across the Earth as the Moon passed in front of the Sun, and to collect scientific data to monitor environmental conditions during the eclipse.
Nicki recounts her experience observing the successful LaSPACE balloon launches and the 2017 solar eclipse below. Enjoy!
I sit here and wonder how to explain the eclipse. How can I explain the moment of brilliant darkness that flooded a strip of the U.S. for three minutes in the middle of the day on August 21, 2017? A moment that humbled us and made us realize that the solar system is much greater than us.
Experiencing a total solar eclipse is something that I have dreamed about ever since I first learned about them in an astronomy book when I was a young girl. (Google wasn’t an option then.) Ever since, I’ve waited for a total solar eclipse to cross the United States. Finally, this year it was going to happen! Even more exciting was that it would cross our country from the west coast to the east coast, making at least a partial eclipse visible to the entire continental United States!
But for me, a partial eclipse wasn’t enough. I began plotting my trek to totality. Tennessee was doable, but then I learned about Carbondale - the Crossroads of the 2017 eclipse and the next total solar eclipse that will cross the U.S. in 2024. (Spoiler alert: I have a plan already set for the 2024 eclipse. My family has a cottage located along the path of totality! In a likely event that snow and clouds obstruct our view, however, I have backup options in mind, including Carbondale.)
With the destination set, it was time to make a travel plan. But I’m not the only one who had my heart set on viewing the total solar eclipse in Carbondale. This small town was also the carefully selected site for the launch of several Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE) weather balloons to monitor the eclipse! All hotels in the area were booked up months in advance. But luck was on my side - I have a friend whose family lives in Carbondale. (Shout out and massive thanks to Maggie Roberts and her family for hosting me!)
The Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE) planned to launch two weather balloons from Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University (SIU). An LSU balloon would record the Moon’s shadow crossing the Earth as part of NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, led by the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
For me personally, Carbondale was going to be the most exciting place to watch the eclipse! I couldn’t wait to get on the road to begin my journey to my first eclipse. In a strange sense, the summer couldn’t go fast enough.
Upon arriving to SIU, I was surrounded by eclipse enthusiasts. Barely stepping out of my car, I met Colin V. Similar to me, he had waited since he was little kid to see a total solar eclipse. At only 10 years old, he had read about this particular eclipse and decided that it was a must-see. He ventured 7.5 hours from Grand Rapids, MI. The icing on top for him was that his birthday was just a few days later! I hadn’t even entered the SIU activities, and I already knew that I had come to the right place.
First stop was picking up media credentials! I was ready to cover all of the LSU and LaSPACE activities, including a talk by Dr. Cynthia Peterson, Dean of the College of Science, at the SIU Astronomy, Science and Technology Expo. Her talk highlighted space research at LSU, including the gravitational waves discovered at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), Martian research by the Planetary Science Laboratory in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and LSU Chemistry experiments on board Blue Origin.
A few LaSPACE Team members attended the Expo while others set up the Eclipse Balloon ground station on the roof of Saluki Stadium and prepared the balloon payload strings.
After following the LaSPACE Team, checking out the Art and Craft Fair, and finishing important prep work (attaching a solar filter to my DSLR camera lens), the day finally came to a close. I almost couldn’t go to sleep because of the anticipation of the eclipse the next day. After all, it was a day that I had waited for almost my entire life.
To beat traffic, I headed to SIU around 7 a.m.. First on the agenda was testing the solar filter for my Nikon D3400 camera. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t taking good pictures of the sun until the eclipse started. But thankfully, I was still able to get some awesome pictures!
The partial eclipse didn’t start until almost noon, but the day started early. LaSPACE Balloon teams had their balloons laid out on the field by 9 a.m. The teams started filling their balloons around 11 a.m., with Brad Landry, LSU Physics & Astronomy senior, serving as the lead for the LSU balloon, and Daneisha Blair, the newest LaACES ballooning project coordinator, serving as the lead for the McNeese State University, Louisiana Tech and Delgado Community College balloon. It took only about 15 minutes to fill the balloons, but the launch did not occur until 11:50 a.m., right before the partial eclipse started.
The balloons rose about 10,000 feet in the air within 10 minutes. The ideal height of the balloon during the total solar eclipse was over 90,000 feet, so the timing of the launch needed to be perfect.
Fun Fact: What happens to the balloon? “The higher and higher the balloon gets, the more it expands. Eventually the balloon will pop.” - Brad Landry, LSU Physics & Astronomy senior
LaSPACE teams launched two balloons at Saluki Stadium. The LSU balloon carried a camera payload. “The primary objective of what we’re trying to do is to stream HD video from balloon payloads which are going into the stratosphere and hopefully we will capture the moon’s shadow as it crosses over Carbondale," Greg Guzik, Professor in LSU's Department of Physics & Astronomy and director of the LaSPACE and LaACES (Louisiana Aerospace Catalysts Experiences for Students) programs, said.
Once the balloons were rising in the air, I made a mad dash back to my tripod to set up for the partial eclipse. The announcer made the call that the eclipse had started! The moment had arrived. Just a sliver in the upper right of the Sun missing. The tiniest sliver that didn’t even reveal what was to come.
The Moon began its march across the Sun, and the stadium began to fill with people. All around everyone was excited about the big moment to come at 1:20 p.m.
It wasn’t until the Moon was blocking more than half of the Sun that I fully embraced that I was experiencing my childhood dream. The Moon was on a mission and would not be stopped.
Unfortunately, there was something that could stop everyone from seeing this fantastic moment. Clouds. At 1 p.m., the clouds rolled in. Dark and gray, they extended as far as I could see. At 1:05 p.m., I realized that I may have to accept that the moment that I had waited years for and traveled across five states for was not going to happen. I turned to my friend and said that I would cry at totality if that happened. Seemed like the only logical response for a scientist’s missed opportunity.
At 1:17 p.m. though, there was a sliver of Sun and a sliver of hope!
And thus began the countdown to totality through the clouds… 1:18 p.m.... No sliver of the sun… 1:19 p.m.… Would I be able to see it... 1:20 p.m.! Totality hit and the clouds played nice, letting us see the majestic diamond ring. Wow!
The clouds faded in and out, but every moment the ring shined through was a moment of greatness. I looked at my watch and time was ticking away. At the final moments, the clouds let us see the second diamond ring as the eclipse said goodbye.
The eclipse is a reminder of the great solar system we live in, that forces much greater than us allow us to survive on this planet.
The eclipse experience is a different experience for everyone. I shared my experience with a crowd of around 14,000 people, most of which stayed for only the moments of totality. I loved every moment of it and loved seeing LSU science faculty and students record and celebrate this great event. I would not change a thing for my first eclipse experience. Next time, I will be looking for something even more personal. If the weather is favorable, I will watch the disappearing sun from my tucked away personal property with at least three cameras and telescopes, combining the emotional side with my scientist side.