Ohio Students' Balloon Aids NASA Eclipse Livestream

Middle school students play a part in live-streaming NASA's video from high altitude balloons of Monday's solar eclipse.

by Marion Renault, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / August 21, 2017 0
Middle school students hope to live-stream Monday's solar eclipse with the aid of a high altitude balloon.

(TNS) -- It's only natural that the best view of the solar eclipse will be quite literally out of this world.

Luckily, for us earthlings, it will be a click away.

For the first time in history, video captured from high-altitude balloons floating 60,000-plus feet in the air will cast the scene from above as the moon's shadow sweeps in an arc from Oregon to South Carolina. Perched on the edge of space, more than 50 shoe-box-size devices are set to show Monday's celestial spectacle in a live webcast.

"We've spent almost 18 months on this to get the perfect two-minute video," said 13-year-old Mount Vernon resident Molly Clow on Sunday. "It's almost nerve-wrecking."

Before long, she and 30 other Knox County middle- and high-school students will complete their role as part of the NASA-sponsored livestream mission, releasing a souped-up weather balloon of their own Monday from Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park in Kentucky.

"I still don't think I understand how crazy this is," said Makenna Hughes, also of Mount Vernon, who will be celebrating her 14th birthday as the Knox County team launches its balloon.

About 1:23 p.m. Monday, the students and their Kentucky launch site will be swallowed by an off-schedule darkness as the moon entirely blocks the sun's glow.

It will mark the first time since 1918 that a solar eclipse cuts a coast-to-coast path across the continental United States. Hundreds of millions of people are expected to tune into NASA's high-altitude livestream at www.nasa.gov/eclipselive.

By then, the helium-filled balloons released roughly an hour earlier will have climbed somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 feet — higher than commercial airplanes fly and above most of Earth's atmosphere.

Each balloon will carry a foam box — called the payload — equipped with high-definition and 360-degree cameras, GPS tracking, a credit-card-size computer called Raspberry Pi and a host of sensors to measure air pressure, humidity, position and speed.

Per Federal Aviation Administration rules, the payload has to weigh less than 12 pounds. The equipment also has to function in little to no air pressure and at temperatures as low as minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Back on Earth, the Knox County team will have to battle overloaded cellular networks and leverage precious bandwidth to livestream images of the eclipse backdropped by the earth's curvature and endless black space beyond it.

But the young Ohioans say they're well prepared for the challenges.

The local team began engineering the payloads and video imagery in March 2016. The students sent and recovered the devices from cornfields, bushes and barbed-wire fences seven times before the final deployment in Kentucky.

"There was no school book or teacher. We had to learn it all on our own," said Riana McVicker, 14, of Centerburg.

And that's saying something. College and graduate students make up most of the other 55 teams contributing to NASA's livestream, said Jeremy Funk, local project adviser and a Department of Defense electrical engineer.

Along the way, students discovered a passion for python computer programming, videography and hardware design. McVicker, who described herself as a violinist and not an aspiring scientist, was among the team members who traveled to Montana to get NASA training in ground-station tracking and live video-feed streaming. Now, she's flying airplanes and happily missed the first days of her freshman year of high school for the solar eclipse.

"That's what you want: That spark," Funk said. "The idea is to plant that."

At its core, the eclipse balloon project was intended to put cutting-edge technology into the hands of young scientists, said Angela Des Jardins, a Montana State University astrophysicist who began coordinating the space balloon project in 2014. The solar eclipse, in all its glory and anticipation, was extra bait, she said.

"It was conceived with students in mind from the get-go," she said. "We provided all the pieces. ... They built up everything and learned how it works. That exposure is absolutely crucial for preparing our next-generation workforce."

After the balloons are released Monday, the hundreds of student participants will have one last task: Join the rest of the country in its collective awe.

"For us as a country just to pause for 90 minutes and basically be like, 'Wow,' will be incredible," Jardins said. "It's really such a human moment."

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.