University students from Oregon and Alaska are launching more than a half-dozen giant balloons toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere from Oregon State University’s campus Monday morning to get spectacular photos and video of the total solar eclipse.
The largest team, from Portland State University, will launch five balloons that will float up to more than 100,000 feet, far above the cruising altitude for commercial airliners.
Three of the balloons will take hundreds of thousands of high-resolution photos that will show the eclipse and the moon’s shadow passing through Oregon.
A fourth balloon will join dozens of others launched by college and high school students across the country so viewers can go online to get a high-altitude view of the celestial event as it passes across the United States.
The last balloon will attempt to capture the other balloons shooting away at the edge of space.
Mark Weislogel, a professor of mechanical engineering at PSU, said the project gives students hands-on training for a future career.
“It’s all the right stuff engineers do on rockets,” Weislogel said following a test run Sunday morning. “Not only that, you can only get one chance. ... It’s a great educational thing because it forces them to use what they learned in class.”
The vast collection of photos is really the cherry on top of the endeavor. If all goes as planned, the final product will be an image showing the sweep of Oregon with the eclipse that viewers can zoom down to individual rooftops.
The image will be made possible by technology that will stitch the photos together at the various altitudes as the balloons rise up.
“We’re able to create art from all the science, and that’s not something that a lot of people have the opportunity to do, so it’s a wonderful collaboration between science and art and design,” PSU student Rihana Mungin said. “It’s been an amazing and wonderful experience.”
The balloons, which will grow to 50 to 60 feet in diameter at the highest altitudes, will burst and parachutes will safely carry the camera equipment to the ground.
The team installed tracking equipment on the roof of a nearby building so the teams stationed downwind can locate their landing spots.
Oregon Tech’s Gravity and Space, or GRASP, Club also will launch a balloon as part of the webstreaming collaboration. Students from the University of Alaska, who will launch a similar balloon, were set to arrive later Sunday.
Oregon Tech’s balloon also will be carrying some precious cargo: a small metal card with dried bacteria on its surface. Two Cornell University students joined the Oregon Tech team to participate in the NASA-run experiment.
During the eclipse, the condition of Earth’s upper atmosphere will closely resemble the conditions on Mars at the surface. The moon will block the full blast of solar radiation and heat, shielding Earth from certain ultraviolet rays that are less common on the red planet.
Once the bacteria sample is retrieved and compared to its earthbound counterpart, researchers will be able to show if the exposure to Mars-like conditions resulted in any genetic changes.
NASA officials said the result of the experiment should improve the search for life on other worlds through better understanding of the limits of territorial life.
The Oregon Tech team initially was scheduled to launch its balloon near Detroit Lake. But that plan got upended by the large wildfire in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area.
Team member Jack Thomas said it also could be difficult to retrieve the valuable cargo if it landed in or near the wildfire zone.
“It wasn’t a good scene,” he said.
Back with the PSU team, Mungin said it will be very difficult to enjoy the entire show Monday as members will be launching balloons minutes before totality.
“Once we launch that final balloon, there’s going to be a lot of” — and then she sighed deeply. “Everybody who is on the ground is going to be able to take a minute and breathe and relax.”