PSU students prep for eclipse from 100,000 feet

The solar eclipse will happen August 21, 2017

The PSU eclipse balloon team in an undated test (Courtesy photo)
The PSU eclipse balloon team in an undated test (Courtesy photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN)  – Some Portland State University students are part of a nationwide-network of eclipse scientists across the country who will be launching high-altitude weather balloons on August 21.

The 4 balloons from PSU will be equipped with GPS tracking systems and cameras during the upcoming solar eclipse. Three of the 4 balloons are part of the students’ senior project.

Eclipse.stream.live

The other balloon, designed to reach 100,000 feet in the air, will be part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project funded by NASA, including 55 colleges and school teams from Oregon through South Carolina.

This graphic explains how the moon will block the sun from the Earth during a solar eclipse (Eclipse.stream.live)
This graphic explains how the moon will block the sun from the Earth during a solar eclipse (Eclipse.stream.live)

Video from the project balloons will be live streamed, giving anyone anywhere a special view of the eclipse.

“There will be so many people that won’t be able to make it into that path of totality and it’s also a view of the eclipse that not many people have seen,” PSU student Rihana Mungin told KOIN 6 News. “You don’t typically see the shadow as it’s crossing the Earth.”

The PSU senior project balloons will reach different levels to document the eclipse at different altitudes. The first balloon will reach 70,000 feet in the air, the second will reach 100,000 feet and the third will go to 130,000 feet — more than 20 miles high. For comparison, Mungin said a typical airliner reaches a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet.”
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Student involvement

Mungin, who is a mechanical engineering student set to graduate at the end of August, said she went to a conference in Montana to learn to basics of ballooning.

Complete coverage: Oregon solar eclipse

Montana State University coordinated the Eclipse Balooning Project, and all the participating schools will have a similar system: a camera taking video that’s transmitted back to the ground and then uploaded to the internet for the live stream.

“So anybody with a computer and an internet connection can go online and watch and see what the balloon is seeing,” she said.

PSU students will launch 4 high-altitude balloons with GPS tracking and 360-video cameras during the August solar eclipse, July 13, 2017 (KOIN)
PSU students will launch 4 high-altitude balloons with GPS tracking and 360-video cameras during the August solar eclipse, July 13, 2017 (KOIN)

The balloons themselves weigh about 3 kilograms (not quite 7 pounds) and are about 15 feet in diameter, she said. At its maximum, Mungin said the balloon will be about 43 feet in diameter.

“When you think of a balloon you don’t think of a party balloon being that heavy, right? So we have to put enough gas to be able to lift the balloon itself and then we have to put enough in to lift the boxes that we’ll be attaching to the balloon that contain our equipment.”

Mungin explained that as the balloon goes up into the atmosphere, the gas inside expands. “At a certain point it will get so high it will push on the edge of the latex of the balloon and just pop the balloon.”

When it does, the payload attached — 3 still cameras, a video camera, a GPS locator plus pressure and temperature sensors —  will parachute back to Earth.

The PSU team plans to do a more extensive test launch on July 29, that will include letting the balloon go, testing the equipment and recovering the items.

Weather permitting, all the balloons will be launched from Oregon State University in Corvallis on Eclipse Day.

Rihana Mugin is definitely looking forward to the daytime darkness on August 21.

“I just want to see what it looks like,” she said.

This map shows the path of the solar eclipse across the US, with dots indicating scientific study taking place, July 13, 2017 (Courtesy: Eclipse.stream.live)
This map shows the path of the solar eclipse across the US, with dots indicating scientific study taking place, July 13, 2017 (Courtesy: Eclipse.stream.live)