Montana State University

MSU to lead national network of students monitoring 2017 solar eclipse

September 25, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU students launch a high-altitude weather balloon during an Aug. 6 practice at Rexburg, Idaho. (Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium). This was one of the images transmitted live by a high-altitude balloon that MSU students launched Aug. 6 from Rexburg, Idaho. (Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium).This total solar eclipse occurred March 7, 1970. (Photo courtesy of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation). This shows the path and local times that the 2017 solar eclipse will appear across the United States. It also shows how long the total eclipse can be viewed at some U.S. locations. (Graphic courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium).

MSU students launch a high-altitude weather balloon during an Aug. 6 practice at Rexburg, Idaho. (Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium).

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – When a total solar eclipse occurs in three years, college students from all over the United States will monitor it by sending weather balloons to the upper edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Montana State University is leading the charge, and MSU innovations made it possible, said Angela Des Jardins, director of NASA’s Montana Space Grant Consortium.

Des Jardins came up with the idea for the balloon project and presented it at a national conference last year. She then got the job of implementing it. Realizing that Aug. 21, 2017, the date of the eclipse, isn’t as far off as it seems, Des Jardins recently encouraged MSU students and faculty to become involved. A variety of teams, even a team for organizing teams, will be needed for success, she said. Schools in 42 states have already signed up.

College students have been launching helium-filled latex weather balloons for more than a decade through the Space Grant Consortiums in their states, Des Jardins said. Participants design and build scientific instruments, then launch them on balloons that fly up to 100,000 feet. In the process, the students gain hands-on research experience, gather valuable information about conditions near space, and learn how to work on multidisciplinary teams. Many go on to careers in space, aerospace and related fields. Montana’s program, called BOREALIS, was founded in 2001.

After MSU students developed various computer systems, the ability to send live images during flight, and a valve that would let their balloons float as long as the students wanted, Des Jardins said she realized they had paved the way for a project to monitor the upcoming eclipse. In the first U.S. project of its kind, the students will launch high-altitude weather balloons carrying cameras and scientific instruments to measure such things as radiation, pressure and temperature during an eclipse. The photos will be shared live on a NASA website.

The MSU valve allows the students to release helium from the balloons, so the balloons stay aloft instead of popping almost as soon as they reach the upper atmosphere, Des Jardins said. That gives the students more time to gather information.

The computer systems let the students see the exact location and height of the balloons, determine the right time to release the helium, and communicate with the valve. The students can tell when the balloon is flying over a good landing spot and instruct a tethered dart to pop the balloon.

Another MSU innovation allows students to accurately measure temperatures from the Earth’s atmosphere, Des Jardins said. High-altitude balloons create a wake, so the temperature inside the wake is different from the temperature outside of it. To overcome that, the students developed a dangler system that uses fishing reel and line to lower a temperature sensor 200 feet below the balloon and pull it back up again. It will give students on the eclipse project the ability to measure the temperature change between the first two layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, the troposphere and stratosphere.

“This is fantastic. This could be the first ever measurement of four-dimensional total solar eclipse stratospheric temperature changes,” Des Jardins said.

Clouds, rain, smoke, smog or fog won’t interfere with the data gathering, because the balloons will fly far above them, Des Jardins said. At 84,000 feet, high-altitude weather balloons fly above 98 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Excited about the opportunities ahead, Des Jardins said the balloon network will engage the public by allowing them to follow the eclipse from anywhere in the world. The network will also advance science and technology and help develop the work force by engaging thousands of students.

She added that viewing an eclipse is amazing in itself. The last total solar eclipse that could be seen in the continental United States occurred in 1979.

“Montana was a fantastic place to see the eclipse that year,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to see total solar eclipses. They are really just amazing events, a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people.”

Larry Springer is so intrigued by them that he has traveled to see three eclipses so far. A senior research engineer in MSU’s physics department and co-director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, Springer saw one in Oregon in the 1970s, one in Hawaii in the 1990s and one last year from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“You don’t get a huge number of opportunities unless you are willing to travel everywhere in the world. All three of those were relatively easy to get to,” said Springer, who plans to watch his fourth eclipse from Rexburg, Idaho.

“Eclipses have such a unique feeling to them,” he said. “You should at least go to one in your life.”

The 2017 eclipse will only be partial across Montana, so the MSU balloon team will launch its high-altitude balloons from Rexburg. It’s the closest spot to Bozeman to see the total eclipse, Des Jardins said. The eclipse there will last two minutes, compared to 25 seconds at the edge of the eclipse’s path.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu