Southwestern CC teams with NASA for balloon study

It’s going to start getting dark in Sylva, NC, just after noon on August 21, 2017. 

That’s because Sylva lies directly in the path of a once-in-a-generation natural phenomenon that will blanket the area in daytime darkness. A total solar eclipse will track across the contiguous (lower 48) United States for the first time since 1979. The last time Jackson County fell in the path of what scientists call “totality” was in the year 1506; the next total solar eclipse won’t cast a shadow on Jackson County until 2153. 

And Matt Cass, the science department chair at Southwestern Community College, can’t wait to see and experience the solar eclipse. He has a unique perspective on the event, because, thanks to Cass’s work, SCC is the only community college in the nation to enter into a cooperative science agreement with NASA. 

SCC landed $1.5 million in NASA funding for STEM education, in cooperation with the schools in the Smoky Mountains STEM Collaborative. The collaborative includes the Jackson, Macon, Swain County and Cherokee Central school systems; Appalachian State University; Great Smoky Mountains National Park; NASA Marshall Space Center; and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute. 

While there are many projects involved in the grant, Cass’s primary focus is a high-altitude balloon launch the day of the solar eclipse. The balloon will travel up to 100,000 feet, to the edge of space, to capture video and still images of the eclipse. 

The students design their own payload—essentially an insulated box holding components such as a camera, GPS tracker, radio and multiple sensors. Those instruments will record barometric pressure, temperature and altitude. There’s also an accelerometer onboard to see how fast the balloon changes direction. 

The entire payload is tracked using NASA’s Automatic Packet Reporting System network. The APRS downloads the information so the balloon team can track it online. That’s important, because high altitude winds (the jet stream) can carry the balloon hundreds of miles from its launch point. 

Cass says the balloon project not only allows students to experience an amazing event in a unique way, students also learn engineering design. They must follow NASA’s design, build and launch model. Cass says it teaches students real world engineering skills they can take with them to careers and beyond. 

“The cooperative agreement with NASA has really opened the door for our students to do research,” says Cass. “Due to resource limitations in the past, our focus had not always been on research, but now we have an opportunity to do research in a big way. The impact on students is immeasurable.” 

To find out more about the balloon launch, as well as SCC’s science programs and the NASA partnership, visit or call 828.339.4000.

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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