For the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse will take place in the United States on Monday, August 21. Lenoir-Rhyne University is taking part in the event in a unique way, as a team of students prepare to launch a balloon to the edge of space to record the eclipse.
Under the direction of Dr. Douglas Knight, Professor of Physics and Earth Science, a team of nine students from the College of Arts and Sciences will participate in NASA's Eclipse Ballooning Project. LRU is one of approximately 50 college and university teams from across the nation taking part in the project. During the eclipse, teams from Oregon to South Carolina will conduct high altitude balloon (HAB) flights at various times, capturing video and images of an eclipse from space as it moves across the U.S. These images will be live-streamed on NASA's website for public viewing.
"Through the project these students are learning job skills and creating resume builders," said Dr. Knight, who has been conducting balloon-related student projects for nearly ten years. "I try to do projects that are fun, very interesting, but at the same time teach problem solving skills students can use when they get out of school."
The team will travel to Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) the Sunday before the eclipse and begin setting up for the launch. PARI was chosen as the launch site because it falls directly in the eclipses' path of totality. With each person on the team carrying a different responsibility, it's important for everyone to work in cohesion for the project to be successful. Pre-med and Biology major, Sean Bryant, is responsible for tracking the balloon, which will travel 80 – 100,000 feet at max altitude.
"It's actually more complicated than I thought it would be," Bryant said. "I use a transceiver which can tell me how high the balloon is, how fast it's traveling, and in what direction." After doing a test launch in April, Bryant said the team was unable to recover the equipment because a signal for tracking was lost as the balloon descended. "On our dry run we were able to track to how high it went up, but then when it popped it went to 60,000 feet and we didn't see it again."
According to Dr. Knight, during the actual launch, the team will be adding their own sensors and trackers to the balloon's payload, along with their own cameras to take data. "We want to do more than just use equipment someone provides and shows us how to use," Dr. Knight said. "We want to create our own systems and prove they work."
An important aspect of the launch is making sure the balloon, which is made from a delicate latex material and reaches 10 to 12 feet across when inflated, does not get damaged or sent up with too little or too much inflation. Engineering and Physics major, Jake Robinson, is largely responsible for handling the balloon prior to and during the launch. His background in engineering and physics is helpful when working to determine how much to inflate the balloon. "We have to test the weight of the payload to see how much lift the balloon needs," Robinson said. "If we don't get it right then the balloon could go up too fast and that could be a problem. We also have to wear gloves because we don't want the oils from our hands to get on the balloon. Once we put the helium inside, we have to keep it under constant watch as it begins filling up and expanding."
Dr. Knight explained if the balloon launches too fast it may stop dropping before the eclipse occurs, and if it goes up too slow, it takes too long to reach apogee and the winds in the upper atmosphere can push it. "I've helped a team launch one in the past that went up very under deflated and it landed in the ocean because of the upper atmospheric winds," he said.
With such a historical event quickly approaching, Dr. Knight and his team are anxious for the launch, but the students are not letting the pressure get to them.
"Dr. Knight is very focused on you doing your best," Bryant said. "When it comes to the pressures I don't have time to think about the historic aspect or the importance because I'm always trying to do my best."
As for Dr. Knight, he says he strives to run projects like he used to coach high-school football. "I tell them if you do your job, and I do my job, the whole team will function well."
UNC-TV will air a story about Dr. Knight's team and their participation in the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project on Sci Tech Now North Carolina on Sunday, August 20. A video from their coverage of the project is currently posted on the UNC-TV website at, http://science.unctv.org/content/video/balloon-solar-eclipse.
Team members include the following LRU students:
LRU offers graduate programs and a seminary school in Columbia, South Carolina, which is home to the longest total solar eclipse for a metro area on the East Coast. The campus community will be able to take part in Total Eclipse Weekend Columbia, S.C., which will host 120 eclipse related festivals and events from Aug. 18 – 21.