Montana State University

Students send balloon up 87,000 feet to prepare for 2017 solar eclipse

April 14, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Volunteers, including Sen. Jon Tester at left, hold up their arms to protect a weather balloon being filled with helium. (MSU photo by Evelyn Boswell). As volunteers guard a weather balloon being prepared for launch, Tim Basta and Micaela Moreni (at right) discuss the payload train in front of them. Basta will graduate from MSU in May, and Moreni will take over some of his responsibilities in the BOREALIS program. (MSU photo by Evelyn Boswell). Angela Des Jardins, left, photographs an enthusiastic team after it recovered a high-altitude balloon and its payload from a field in northern Montana. (MSU photo by Evelyn Boswell).

Volunteers, including Sen. Jon Tester at left, hold up their arms to protect a weather balloon being filled with helium. (MSU photo by Evelyn Boswell).

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BOZEMAN -- Two years before a total solar eclipse crosses the United States, the Montana Space Grant Consortium continues to prepare for its role as a national leader in monitoring the rare sighting.

The latest rehearsal took place on a windy spring day in northern Montana as Montana State University, University of Montana and Montana Tech students launched a high-altitude weather balloon from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s farm near Big Sandy.

While meadowlarks sang, ducks quacked and Tester took a break from planting peas, the students set up the instruments they would need to follow the balloon to the edge of space, watch the pictures it would take, command it to return to Earth and find out where it landed.

Then they placed a tarp on the ground and laid the balloon onto it. MSGC Director Angela Des Jardins explained to a busload of Big Sandy High School students what was happening, then recruited some of them to help keep the latex balloon off the ground while it was being filled with helium. The students and others – all wearing white gloves to further protect the balloon – held out their arms as the balloon lurched this way and that.

Then, suddenly, the helium and wind carried the balloon away.

The postcards that were to accompany it and later be sent to interested Montanans remained on the ground. The experiment designed by Adeline Hahn, an eighth grader at Fairfield Public Schools, stayed in the box that should have carried them toward space. The video camera, the valve that would have released helium from the balloon and the dart that would have popped the balloon on command were all left behind. So were the radio and an instrument to record speed and directions.

Silence. Groans.

But problems – like the delays MSU students have experienced before successfully launching satellites on NASA missions – are part of the experience, Des Jardins said.

And that’s why the team carried three spare balloons and extra helium.

The college students soon filled the second balloon with helium and attached its payload. Everyone counted down, then cheered as they released it.

For the next two hours, next to Tester’s house and closer to Wi-Fi access, MSGC staff and students adjusted their antennas so they could follow the balloon as it rose to 87,000 feet.

As they watched, MSU students talked about the role that MSU’s ballooning program, called BOREALIS, and NASA’s Montana Space Grant Consortium have played in their lives so far. Tim Basta of Great Falls said – unless he can fit in another launch before graduation – that this was his 29th and final balloon launch as an MSU student. It was bittersweet, said the mechanical engineering major who designed the valve that allows the balloon to stay aloft as long as the students want.

Des Jardins said the valve was one of the MSU achievements that led her believe it was possible to organize a national network of college students who would monitor the solar eclipse with high-altitude balloons. Des Jardins is in charge of the effort and said 53 schools from Puerto Rico to Alaska have signed up so far to be involved. The eclipse will be visible across the United States on Aug. 21, 2017.

BOREALIS flight director Berk Knighton said he was willing himself not to show emotion as it sunk in that Basta’s time at MSU is nearing an end. The good news, however, was that Basta will be starting a job in mid-May with World View Enterprises, Inc. The private company is exploring the use of high-altitude balloons for tourism, scientific research and commercial enterprises.

Basta said his BOREALIS experience “absolutely” got him the job. He has been involved with BOREALIS for at least three years, and the opportunity got him interested in high-altitude research. He also learned how to design 12-pound containers that would survive temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius, near-vacuum conditions and drops of 90,000 feet.

Des Jardins said Scott Miller from Kalispell, a senior in computer engineering, has two job offers with major ballooning companies because of his involvement with BOREALIS. Shelby Malin from Lolo, a Montana Tech junior involved with the Montana Space Grant Consortium, has an upcoming summer internship with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

As students graduate, the MSGC continues to develop new students, Des Jardins said. Micaela Moreni, for one, has been shadowing Basta and said she feels prepared to take over his ballooning responsibilities when he graduates. Moreni, from Anaconda, is an MSU sophomore in mechanical engineering. Skylar Tamke of Billings, a junior in electrical engineering, was shadowing Miller.

Matt Fisher, who teaches biology at Great Falls College MSU and is the MSGC representative there, came to Big Sandy to learn more about the ballooning program so he can share the opportunity with his students, too.

“It was exciting. It was great to see this,” Fisher said. “When students have opportunities like this, they just get excited.”

Some middle school and high school students around the state are already involved with high-altitude ballooning. Orion MacDonald, a seventh grader from Simms Public Schools, watched the launch from Tester’s farm. Hahn said the instrument she launched from Tester’s farm would measure ultraviolet radiation. She wanted to compare April readings with those she had collected during a previous launch in October.

“I have always liked space, and it’s really interesting to me,” she said.

Adeline’s father, Raimund Hahn, teaches 7th through 12th grade science and said he was recruited by the Simms High School to start a science and technology program there. This is his second year of involvement with the BOREALIS program.

“Student research is the best educational tool there is, bar none. That’s why we do it,” Hahn said.

“We found out through the BOREALIS program that it has made education powerful,” he added. “When it becomes powerful, it becomes meaningful, and kids get it.”

When the high-altitude balloon finally reached 87,000 feet, Knighton gave the command to pop it. As the crowd watched by computer and then by eye, the deflated balloon fell almost 17 miles toward Earth. It finally landed in a field some 20 miles from Tester’s farm.

Unlike some previous flights the group described, the students didn’t have to contact the U.S. Forest Service to help them retrieve their balloon from a tall Douglas fir tree on top of a mountain. They didn’t have to chase a balloon flying 100 miles an hour from Harlowton toward Miles City. They didn’t have to slog through a bog or cheatgrass.

This retrieval required a drive to Big Sandy and Box Elder, then a short walk from a dirt road.

“That was one of the easiest recoveries ever,” Des Jardins said.

Of his 29 missions so far, Basta said, “They keep getting better. All the systems worked today. It was a great success.”

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