News

Moonstruck
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: September 15, 2017

Students send balloons into the stratosphere to document the Great American Eclipse.

WHILE MILLIONS of spectators watched the skies during the total eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, a team of PSU engineering students watched the Earth from the edge of space.

The team—led by Rihana Mungin, Harmony Ewing and Olea Stevens—were part of a nationwide NASA-funded project to send weather balloons more than 100,000 feet into the sky to photograph the eclipse shadow as it moved across the United States. By comparison, commercial jets cruise at an altitude of about 40,000 feet. The project involved 55 college and high school teams, all of which launched balloons along the eclipse path, which started near Lincoln City and ended in South Carolina. 

In addition to the NASA project, the PSU team launched other balloons as part of their senior capstone project—one of the final requirements of their baccalaureate degrees. The balloons, equipped with high-resolution digital cameras, hovered at different altitudes, giving a multidimensional view of the event. 

“This project gave us engineering skills you don’t get in a classroom,” says project leader Rihana Mungin, a mechanical engineering senior. “We produced incredible images that people wouldn’t ordinarily have seen.

The PSU team launched from an athletic field at the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis due to its location in the path of totality. The first round of balloons went up at 7 a.m. as spectators started gathering with their lawn chairs outside the field perimeter. Within minutes, they became tiny specks in the cloudless blue sky. More launches followed right up to eclipse time.

THE BALLOON launches were the culmination of months of work by the students, during which they made equipment housings with 3D printers, fine-tuned the remote tracking technologies required to transmit data, calculated the balloons’ likely trajectories, and tackled hundreds of other details essential for success. The work also included practice launches at the rural home of engineering professor Mark Weislogel.

After the big event came the work of retrieving the cameras and data collection equipment. Each balloon was designed to pop when it reached a specific altitude, with parachutes carrying the high-tech payloads back to Earth. The PSU team recovered one of the payloads from a farmer’s field near Corvallis Municipal Airport. They found another 80 feet up in a tree in the Coast Range. And the next morning, the team was headed back to the Coast Range to recover two more. 

Not all of the balloons survived. One of them, perhaps due to a small leak, never gained full altitude, which caused it to drift out over the Pacific, never to be seen again. But small glitches are part of the learning process and were more than made up for by the stunning images collected from the remaining balloons.

You can see the video feeds from different teams at the Eclipse Ballooning Project at eclipse.stream.live.

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

[captions] A team of Portland State engineering students prepare their balloons for timed launches with two other college teams on Peavy Fields at Oregon State University. Photo by Ben Semerjian.

The balloons each supported three cameras that took photos of the changing landscape and celestial bodies at 96-frame bursts every 30 seconds. As the balloons popped, their elegant, high-altitude deflation was also caught on camera. Lower left photo by Isabel Rodriguez.