At about 60,000 feet in the air, a tiny camera in a plastic foam box will livestream a solar eclipse for the first time.
The University of Minnesota’s Gophernauts, the campus ballooning team, will attach the foam box to a weather balloon on Aug. 21 to record the coming solar eclipse as part of a nationwide NASA project.
About 50 college teams in the U.S. are working on their equipment as part of NASA’s Space Grant program, an educational astronomy project, said James Flaten, associate director of the MN Space Grant Consortium and advisor of the University’s 12-person team.
The eclipse will trace what astronomers call a path of totality between Oregon and South Carolina from the morning to the afternoon. The path is the only area where the moon will completely block out the sun.
In Minnesota, the about two-minute eclipse will be about 84 percent complete, said Sarah Komperud, planetarium educator at the University’s Bell Museum.
A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the earth and casts a shadow on the earth, said Austin Eiler, team member and aerospace engineering senior.
While solar eclipses occur about twice a year, they generally are not visible to large portions of the world, Eiler said.
“Coast to coast eclipses like this are very rare, the last one happened while World War I was still going on, 99 years ago,” said Flaten, who also works as a contract associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics.
Pi in the sky
The Gophernauts built two payloads — the name for anything attached to the balloon — to record video, take pictures, and send GPS locations and live video to the ground, said Josh Nelson, full team ballooning lead and aerospace engineering senior.
The payloads are plastic foam boxes containing a small computer called the Raspberry Pi and a camera, he said.
When the balloon is in the air, the team points a “ground station” made up of antennae at the balloon and its payload to receive the balloon’s signals every three seconds, Nelson said.
The antennae automatically track the payload, moving as the balloon moves, he said.
The team is still preparing its payloads for eclipse day and regularly practice launching the balloons.
“You need a lot of practice with [the ground station] because you don’t want to screw it up the day of the flight. You [have] one shot at the eclipse,” said Kate Kwiecinski, team member and aerospace engineering junior.
When in the air, the payload box spins, causing filming difficulties. To address this, Kwiecinski is building a payload with eight cameras all around the box.
For the eclipse, the team will drive to Nebraska to set up its equipment. Flaten expects they will fly three balloons with livestreaming payloads.
But the group won’t know the final launch site until the day of the eclipse because of how wind can alter balloon flight, he said.
Once in the air, the balloons expand as they rise and pop at about 90,000 feet, Flaten said. The team then recovers the balloon and payload.
He said they plan to time the launch so the balloons will be at around 60,000 feet during the eclipse, above the height that commercial airplanes fly.
Space on a college budget
About three years ago, Flaten and other universities’ space grant directors met and came up with the idea of doing a nationwide livestream project.
“NASA didn’t think it could be done,” he said. “NASA does livestream from balloon platforms, but their ground stations cost millions of dollars and their flight equipment is thousands of pounds.”
The team is trying to do the same on a college budget and with only 12 pounds — the federal limit due to airplane safety — on their balloon.
Flaten allocated $3,000 for each of the three ground stations and payloads.
After paying the students involved, the total came to about $100,000 — a miniscule amount compared to NASA’s budget for similar projects.
“We had to invent a fair amount of stuff just to pull this off. It’s not as high quality as what they can do, but golly gosh we’re doing it,” Flaten said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated what happens during a solar eclipse. When the moon passes through the earth and the sun, it casts a shadow on the earth.