PISGAH NATIONAL FOREST — August 21, 2017 will be recorded in the history books as the day the "Great American Total Solar Eclipse" made its way across the nation. The orbits of the moon and the sun coincided so that the moon’s shadow cast a 70-mile trail across North America, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. Those in the path got a look at totality, but everyone in the United States witnessed a partial solar eclipse.
The history books might also record how eclipse mania gripped the United States and tens of millions of people donned special eclipse glasses to protect their eyes and get a glimpse of the celestial wonder.
>It was a unique day that, for a few hours, unified a divided nation.
But for members of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s solar eclipse high altitude balloon team, that Monday in August marked the end of one year of work to achieve a single goal: record whatever images they can of the solar eclipse from 90,000 feet. That’s roughly the edge of space.
“It has been an amazing experience,” says Eric Caarraza, a junior. “Everyone has done their jobs; there’s been a lot of nerves, a lot of stress, but in the end it has been awesome. It allowed us to really get involved in a once in a lifetime event.”
The students will launch their balloon from the helipad at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute. NASA built the facility in the 1960s to be used at its east coast satellite tracking station. The Pentagon took it over in 1981 and used it for sensitive satellite data collection before closing it in 1994.
A non-profit group is converting the facility into a scientific research and education facility.
But on the day of the total eclipse, more than 800 people gathered across the sprawling 200-acre campus to view the eclipse. Cheers erupt from the crowd and everyone scrambles for their eclipse glasses when the clouds part just enough to see the moon begin to move across the face of the sun. But then, just as quickly, the clouds move back in.
The sight of the eclipse beginning spurs the students. They must launch roughly 90 minutes before totality is scheduled to start. Across the helipad, students huddle in small groups for a final check on payloads. Students designed and built three payload packages containing video and still cameras, computers for live steaming, a GPS tracking system and instruments measuring temperature, altitude and wind speed. Together, the payloads couldn’t exceed six pounds.
At the center of the helipad, the balloon is inflated. Professor Douglas Knight calls for the launch. After a ten second countdown, students let go of the tethers on the balloon and it climbs quickly, about 1,000 feet per second.
After about 15 minutes, the first data from the tracking system comes in. The report shows strong upper level winds, sending the balloon far and wide as well as high.
“It started here, then went down close to state road 64, then it went past us all the way to Wolf Mountain.” says Juan Hernandez, a junior, who is keeping track of the balloon at the base station at PARI. “It’s all over the place, but we’re still climbing!”
However, all of that movement has taken a toll. The servers, which lock in the video transmission system, fail. The students must now manually move the tracking dish to follow the balloon, in order to receive images. Professor Knight explains the procedure to the students.
“Keep the signal pegged,” Knight says. “Rotate it until it maximizes and then tilt it until it maximizes. You just need to keep it pegged until it goes off.”
“We’ve got pictures!” exclaims Hernandez, as he shows his computer’s screen to everyone. The balloon is clearly moving around a lot, but the Earth below is a mix of blues, browns and greens. The tops of the clouds are snowy white. The balloon is now above the clouds. The dark blue of the upper atmosphere is visible at the edge of the screen.
“We’re now heading east, towards Brevard, and we’re passing 62,000 feet,” says Hernandez.
The balloon eventually reached more than 99,000 feet. That’s higher than any of the test balloons launched by the students had ever flown. The data reports show the balloon reached the height just as the shadow of totality covered the ground station and PARI.
Back on the ground, clouds blocked any view of the eclipse, but an eerie darkness fell over everything. Daytime was seen in the distance but it was nighttime at basecamp. Crickets chirped in the darkness.
But after one minute and 42 seconds of totality, the birds started singing as the sun reappeared.
The cameras in the payload packages captured amazing images of the moon’s shadow placing a giant black spot in the middle of the blue, cloud-covered Earth. Recording those images was the primary goal of the balloon project.
“It went well, for all of the challenges of losing streaming and losing the servers, it went really well,” said Knight. “The balloon burst at 99,400 feet, and that was right at totality so we couldn’t have timed it better. I’m proud of the team and how they worked together, and it was a lot of fun.”
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