Montana State University

MSU undergraduates key to solar eclipse ballooning project

March 30, 2017 -- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

David Schwehr, a senior majoring in computer science, tests equipment on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at Montana State University, for the payloads that will be lifted during the Eclipse Ballooning Project. Schwehr and Moreni are among the 30 Montana State University undergraduates who have contributed to the Eclipse Ballooning Project, which will live-stream aerial video footage of the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMicaela Moreni, left, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, and David Schwehr, a senior majoring in computer science, test equipment on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at Montana State University, for the payloads that will be lifted during the Eclipse Ballooning Project. Schwehr and Moreni are among the 30 Montana State University undergraduates who have contributed to the Eclipse Ballooning Project, which will live-stream aerial video footage of the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

David Schwehr, a senior majoring in computer science, tests equipment on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at Montana State University, for the payloads that will be lifted during the Eclipse Ballooning Project. Schwehr and Moreni are among the 30 Montana State University undergraduates who have contributed to the Eclipse Ballooning Project, which will live-stream aerial video footage of the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN - When more than 70 high-altitude balloons take flight on Aug. 21, 2017 as part of a Montana State University-led project to live-stream aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse, federal air traffic controllers will track the balloons using a system built by MSU undergraduates.

“That’s kind of stressful, knowing that people are relying on us,” said David Schwehr, a senior majoring in computer science at MSU’s Gianforte School of Computing who played a leading role in developing the balloon-tracking system. “But at the same time, it’s pretty satisfying.”

About 30 MSU undergraduates have directly contributed to the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project, according to Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, which is housed in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. Since Des Jardins proposed the MSGC-coordinated project in 2014, it has grown to include 57 teams from across the country.

“The Eclipse Ballooning Project is an undergraduate student-led effort,” Des Jardins said. “Without the MSU undergraduates to develop the balloon payloads, the project wouldn’t have happened.”

Schwehr began working as an intern in MSGC’s high-altitude ballooning facility, called the BOREALIS lab, three years ago. At first, he worked on the electronics that will transmit photos of the eclipse. Then, as part of a senior “capstone” project that included two other computer science students, Dustin Spivey and Garrett Cornwell, he was confronted with the challenge of designing the balloon-tracking system.

“The idea was to create one central resource that air traffic controllers with the Federal Aviation Administration could go to to see where the balloons are” and, if necessary, immediately contact any of the teams, Schwehr said.

Schwehr’s team programmed a software interface to receive the signals sent by cell phone-sized satellite modems that will be housed alongside the cameras in each balloon’s payload. The team also designed a website capable of displaying the balloons’ precise geographical coordinates and altitude on a map.

According to Des Jardins, creating the balloon-tracking system has been a key part of working with the FAA as well as NASA’s Balloon Program Office to ensure that the project is carried out safely.

On Aug. 21, when the moon casts an eerie, daytime darkness along a path stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, the Eclipse Ballooning Project teams will also use the balloon-tracking system to precisely point dish-shaped antennas at their balloons in order to receive the video signal that each will transmit. The video will be live-streamed on NASA’s website and on NASA TV.

And when the video streaming is complete, and the balloons top out at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet, the teams will use the satellite modem system that Schwehr’s team created to send the signal for the balloons to release their payloads, which will then parachute back to Earth.

Micaela Moreni is anticipating that moment. A senior majoring in mechanical engineering in MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, she designed the system that will actually sever the strong nylon cord tethering each balloon to its cargo.

In the BOREALIS lab recently, she demonstrated the machine, which looks like a quarter-sized pizza cutter attached to a small motor and circuit board. The apparatus is contained in a custom-made plastic housing that Moreni designed and fabricated with a 3D printer in the lab.

“We printed these here all summer,” producing parts for the teams across the country, she said. “I’m excited to see it in action.”

According to Schwehr, who came to MSU at age 34 after working 17 years as a heavy equipment mechanic, “the whole eclipse project is a really good engineering problem” because it integrates a number of classic engineering constraints, including size, weight and budget.

He said he appreciates “knowing that all the work we did will be used for something, that it’s not just an assignment for a grade.”

Along with other members of the MSU Eclipse Ballooning Project team, Schwehr will travel to Rexburg, Idaho to send MSU’s balloon skyward on Aug. 21, then get ready to personally witness the eclipse, a rare phenomenon.

After all the hard work, he said, “I’m looking forward to being an observer, and enjoying the show.”

Contact: Angela Des Jardins, Montana Space Grant Consortium, angela.desjardins@montana.edu, (406) 994-6172.

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