Montana State University

MSU-led project plans for 500 million website hits during total solar eclipse

May 18, 2017 -- By Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Montana Space Grant Consortium director Angela Des Jardins. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – While would-be viewers of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse schedule their trips, and cities along the eclipse’s path from Oregon to South Carolina plan for traffic and crowds, Montana State University researchers tackle another logistical challenge: making sure everyone who wants to watch their aerial footage of the eclipse can do so without crashing NASA’s website.

When Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium at MSU, first approached NASA about three years ago with the idea of live-streaming video of the eclipse taken from high-altitude balloons, the partners anticipated that a few million people might tune in, Des Jardins said.

But as the MSU-led project grew to include more than 50 ballooning teams across the country, and popular interest in the “Great American Eclipse” swelled, that estimate grew.

During the roughly 90 minutes that the moon traces an eerie shadow across the country, “we’re anticipating between 100 million and 500 million hits (to the live-stream on NASA’s website),” said Des Jardins, an assistant research professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.

Handling that volume of web traffic presents a major challenge, because it requires access to the internet’s network of large fiber-optic cables as well as huge banks of computer servers, which store digital content and process viewer requests to access it, Des Jardins said.

If MSU tried to host the eclipse video content, the viewer traffic would overwhelm the university’s internet infrastructure, she said. Even NASA, whose live-stream of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars in 2012 garnered some 100 million views, expressed concern and asked the Eclipse Ballooning Project team to help.

“We realized the magnitude of what we were talking about,” Des Jardins said.

After multiple trips to NASA’s headquarters in Washington D.C. to address the issue, Des Jardins got word of a potential solution. When one of the partners in the project, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, tethered their balloon above a local stadium to capture aerial footage of a soccer game as a way to promote the Eclipse Ballooning Project, they worked with a company called Stream, which specializes in broadcasting video to large internet audiences.

One thing led to another, and on March 17, Stream signed a contract with NASA to provide video-streaming service to NASA’s website during the eclipse.

“The Stream solution solved a big issue that was keeping me up at night,” Des Jardins said.

Now, members of the MSU team, which currently includes 14 undergraduates and two graduate students, are working to ensure that the video hardware that will be sent by all the teams nationwide to altitudes approaching 100,000 feet on the balloons is compatible with Stream’s systems.

Skylar Tamke, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering who earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from MSU in 2016, recently spent much of his days talking to contacts at Stream, making edits to the software that will be downloaded onto cell phone-sized circuit boards to control the transmission of the video signal to ground-based antennas that each project team will use.

Tamke, of Billings, also monitors a website forum daily to keep the Eclipse Ballooning Project teams across the country informed about developments in the live-stream system.

“I like that I get to work on both the software and the hardware,” he said.

On Aug. 21, the MSU team will launch their balloon from the Rexburg, Idaho airport, where they have a good internet connection. As the eclipse unfolds, the team will use a dish-shaped antenna to receive the video signal transmitted by the airborne camera, then route the video to Stream. When viewers visit NASA’s website to watch the live-stream, their request will be rerouted to the website hosted on Stream’s servers.

For would-be eclipse viewers who can’t make it to Rexburg or another point along the path of the eclipse’s totality, the live-stream video is a great way to experience the eclipse, Des Jardins said. And if you miss that, you can always watch it later, she added. “We’re going to be recording everything.”

Contact: Angela Des Jardins, angela.desjardins@montana.edu, (406) 994-4223.

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