A half hour before Monday’s solar eclipse reaches its peak, meteorology students in the N.C. State University Soundings Club will launch a helium-filled weather balloon from The Brickyard on campus.
The balloon will be carrying a radiosonde – a small on-board weather station – to collect data about atmospheric pressure, temperature and humidity as much of the sun’s energy is obscured by the moon. The recordings will be used by researchers to understand how the atmosphere responds during an eclipse.
Soundings Club members have launched weather balloons before and have even helped the National Weather Service study weather around Raleigh, but they have never had the opportunity to apply their work to a solar eclipse.
The N.C. State balloon launch is part of a larger, nationwide project called the Eclipse Ballooning Project led by Montana State University and NASA. They have partnered with 55 high school and university student-led teams from around the country stationed near the path of the total eclipse to conduct a variety of experiments ranging from measuring temperature changes to looking at how terrestrial life survives in the stratosphere. Together, the teams will launch 75 balloons from coast to coast.
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The majority of the biodegradable balloons will carry tracking and video systems and a still-image camera to an altitude of nearly 80,000 feet – the edge of outer space – before bursting and parachuting back to Earth. A chase team following signals from the tracking device will recover the equipment.
“The goal of the eclipse ballooning project is to connect to a basic sense of human wonder by providing live footage from the edge of space,” Angela Des Jardins, physicist and Eclipse Ballooning Project leader at Montana State University, said at a NASA eclipse briefing in June.
The first balloon will launch from a research ship in the Pacific Ocean, and rise at a rate of nearly 1,000 feet per minute, offering the public a sneak peak at the eclipse before it reaches the Oregon coast. The remaining balloons will deploy one-by-one as the eclipse moves across the country, following a precisely calculated schedule until the final balloon is released from a Coast Guard ship off the coast of South Carolina. From start to finish, each balloon flight will last around 2 hours.
Much like sports coverage that follows an entire play on the field, the balloon mounted cameras will follow the eclipse in its entirety as it travels across the country. Never before has continuous live coverage been provided of an eclipse moving across an entire continent as it will on Aug. 21.
But within the larger Eclipse Ballooning Project are multiple science experiments that take advantage of the unique environmental changes caused by the eclipse.
Twelve balloons, including the one from N.C. State’s Soundings Club, will record changes in atmospheric conditions such as temperature, wind speed, pressure and humidity.
Additional balloons will help conduct a “piggyback astrobiology experiment” called MicroStrat. Organized by David J. Smith of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, MicroStrat has partnered with 34 teams whose balloons will carry a special payload to the edge of space: small aluminum cards coated with bacteria called Paenibacillus xerothermodurans.
The scientists hope this simple experiment will help them learn more about how life can survive outside of Earth and possibly on planets such as Mars. Smith’s team has been flying bacteria to the stratosphere and back with balloons for a few years, but this is the first time anything of this scale has been attempted.
The temperature and pressures at 80,000 feet are actually very similar to those on the surface of Mars, but normally the sunlight levels are much higher in Earth’s atmosphere. During the eclipse, however, the sunlight will drop to levels that make the outer atmosphere nearly identical to conditions on Mars’ surface.
“The eclipse is bringing about a unique opportunity to generate a lot of data in an environment that is very similar to conditions expected on Mars,” said Smith. “When you just fly at once, at one particular location, it’s hard to start to observe patterns, whereas if you do a similar experiment in 34 different places across the country you might learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The recovered samples will be sent to Smith’s collaborators at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Weill Cornell Medicine, who will measure how many of the bacteria are still alive and any changes they have undergone.
“In a nutshell, we’ll look at the overall survival of the bacteria, but we’ll also look at any changes in the genome,” Smith said. “So if there was any DNA damage based on a trip to the stratosphere and back, we’ll be able to measure that. If any new proteins or genes are expressed at different levels compared to samples that weren’t flown, we’ll be able to measure that as well.”
The findings will help understand how clean spacecraft need to be before sending them into space. Scientists suspect that certain bacteria from Earth could flourish and contaminate the Martian environment, making it more difficult to look for forms of life native to Mars in the future.
But after all the live-streaming and learning about Earth’s atmosphere and life on Mars finishes, the projects will have served another important scientific mission: engaging future scientists.
“We’ve been doing this for a couple years now, doing balloon launches for different reasons. It’s basically that, with an eclipse going on,” said Michael Mugrage, a senior studying meteorology at N.C. State and president of the university’s Soundings Club. “There’s a few more technicalities to go through with being on the Brickyard and also trying to time it with the eclipse, but I don’t think it’s anything that we can’t get through pretty easily.”
The Soundings Club will launch its balloon during the College of Science’s “Eclipse Day Celebration,” which will include physics demonstrations, safe ways to view the eclipse and Moonpies. The event is free and open to the public.
Shae McLamb, senior meteorology student at N.C. State and vice president of the Soundings Club, is looking forward to showing people what they do.
“A lot of people don’t understand what happens with a weather balloon,” McLamb said. “I think the educational aspect is going to be really cool.”
Both Mugrage and McLamb already plan to pursue careers in meteorology, but Smith, the NASA researcher, hopes the balloon project will persuade other students to explore these subjects, too.
“It’s a pretty tremendous educational experience for the participating teams,” he said. “Hopefully it introduces them to fields that they wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.”
Jeremy Frieling: 919-829-4826
See for yourself
▪ Live video streaming from the Eclipse Ballooning Project can be seen at eclipse.stream.live/
▪ N.C. State College of Science’s Eclipse Day Celebration and Soundings Club balloon launch will take place from 12:30 to 4 p.m. Monday. For more information visit sciences.ncsu.edu/event/eclipse-day-celebration/