A View Of The Solar Eclipse From The Edge of Space
Millions of people are making plans, from Oregon to South Carolina, to view the solar eclipse in path of totality, where you’ll be able see the moon completely cover the sun. But for those who can’t make it out, the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project has got you covered. The team of scientists and students are using weather balloons to livestream and capture images of the event from the edge of space. Physicist Angela Des Jardins, leader of the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project, and computer science student Levi Willmeth, who is part of the Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College Eclipse Ballooning Team, discuss the engineering behind the balloons and what data they hope to collect from the project.
[Here are some other experiments scientists will be conducting during the Great American Eclipse.]
It will be the first total eclipse of the sun visible to much of the continental U.S. in over 40 years!
That’s right! Every part of the United States will be able to observe at least a partial solar eclipse.
Angela Des Jardins is the leader of the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project and an assistant research professor in the physics department at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.
Levi Willmeth is a computer science student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
IRA FLATOW: OK. You have 10 days and counting to prepare for the solar eclipse. But if you can’t make it to the path of totality in time, don’t worry, you won’t be left out of the fun. A group of students and scientists is working to capture images and hopefully live-streaming the clips from a unique vantage point, a balloon thousands of feet up there, up, up and away, and conducting a bit of science, too.
My next guests are part of that team. Angela Des Jardins. OK. Leader of the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project. She’s also Assistant Research Professor in physics at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Welcome to Science Friday, Angela.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Thank you very much.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s “De Hardins”, correct?
ANGELA DES JARDINS: It’s actually, “De Jardean”
IRA FLATOW: “De Jardean”
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Fine. It’s a tough one.
IRA FLATOW: Just like the French.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: It’s French. It’s a French-Canadian.
IRA FLATOW: I would have said De Jardins.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Yeah. That’s exactly correct. There you go.
IRA FLATOW: Ha-ha.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Aha!
IRA FLATOW: Now, Levi Willmeth is a computer science student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. He’s member of the Oregon State and Linn Benton Community College Eclipse Ballooning Team. Welcome to Science Friday.
LEVI WILLMETH: Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Angela, there are so many different projects happening for the Eclipse. Why did you choose balloons? You know? What can we learn from that vantage point?
ANGELA DES JARDINS: The really great thing about balloons, so these balloons we’re talking about are not what you would imagine as hot air balloons or party balloons, these are special balloons that actually go to the edge of space, so up to about 100,000 feet. And from that vantage point, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. It really looks like you’re looking down on the planet.
And so the idea came about because I knew there were lots of student high-altitude ballooning groups around the country. And that it would be really a very special viewpoint to be able to do this. And then, the next exciting thing that came up was, sure, it’ll be great to be able to capture that footage but what if we can do it live, while we have everybody’s attention during this amazing moment on eclipse day? Then that would be truly special.
IRA FLATOW: And Levi, you’re on one of these teams and you’re working to capture images from a boat offshore. What do you hope to capture there?
LEVI WILLMETH: That’s correct. So we at Oregon State University are in kind of a unique position that we’re on one of the coastlines, so what we’re hoping to do is launch our balloon from just off the coast of Oregon and get that first shot of the shadow as it kind of hits the continental US. And I think that will kind of be a unique image. And hopefully a really nice video for people that can’t be there in person.
IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea of what you have to build to get your balloon and payload together.
LEVI WILLMETH: So there’s quite a bit that goes into it. Angela and the team at Montana State University did a great job putting together kind of a beginning package for people to kind of build and expand on. Including some equipment for making that initial networking connection between the balloon and the ground itself that would allow us to send the video back and forth.
And one of the challenges that we’ve kind of faced along the way is kind of getting that link as good as it can possibly be by pointing the dish just as accurately as we can.
IRA FLATOW: That raises in me, I was thinking about your project. There’s a camera on the balloon going up?
LEVI WILLMETH: That’s correct.
IRA FLATOW: How do you keep it pointed? While it’s floating around, and keep it pointed in the right direction?
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Yes. So this is one of the really tricky things about the project. So one of the main ways we do that is we actually have an iridium satellite modem on-board the balloons, which has GPS signal. So we actually have a system that takes that GPS signal from the iridium satellite and enables the ground station dishes to be able to point to the balloon.
And this is, you know, of the really great projects that makes it really tricky. Actually, it’s amazing. So we have this little shoe box-sized thing floating way up in the air at the edge of space, and it’s beaming down a signal to an 18-inch dish on the ground. And that we’re able to actually get any footage at all is really an amazing technological feat. Several key technologies had to come together in order for us to even be able to do this.
IRA FLATOW: And how do you keep the camera pointed where you want to, I imagine, which is at the eclipse?
LEVI WILLMETH: So one of the– so each of the teams has kind of solved this in different ways. Personally what we’ve done is we’ve tied the camera itself to our payload, which is tied to the neck of the balloon, so that as the balloon itself gets quite large. It has a large amount of inertia that kind of holds it in place.
And in order for that camera to sway around, this gigantic balloon has to also sway. And we found that really helps dampen all the small motions of wind that you might kind of encounter along the way. Plus, as it gets really high, the air becomes very thin and everything kind of really settles out once you get up to the top there.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.
I want to get a few more questions. But I’m still trying to noodle, because I’m not that smart, how do you keep the camera pointed in a floating balloon at the moon– at the sun. You know?
ANGELA DES JARDINS: So actually, let me just interject here really quick. You know? That’s the first reaction, is that, with these balloons we actually want to look at the sun. But if you think about any time you would actually might want to point your camera towards the sun, it totally saturates your image.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: And so actually for most teams, looking at the sun is not what we want to do. That thing that’s amazing from this vantage point is actually the shadow. So looking down on the Earth as a planet, and seeing that shadow come across the Earth is really a profound, amazing thing to look at.
Now, that’s not to say some teams are going to choose to look at the sun. You know? I myself have an infrared solar experiment that’s going to really want to look at the sun. But for most teams, the balloon is going to move around, there is some you pointing capability in some cases, but for the most part it’s going to move around. And you’re going to see– from that high, you can see 200 miles in every direction.
So you can actually see the shadow coming across the Earth for about 10 minutes before it’s actually totality where the balloon isn’t in, and 10 minutes going.
IRA FLATOW: All right.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: So it’s really–
IRA FLATOW: You’ve got my attention.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Yeah. It’s amazing.
IRA FLATOW: And is there real science to be learned there, Angela?
ANGELA DES JARDINS: There is some really fantastic science. There’s really three key pieces of science that we’re doing here. So there’s a sister project in addition to streaming live video that we’re actually going to look at, how the eclipse shadow actually affects the atmosphere.
And so every day, you know, we have the sunrise and sunset that sets up gravity waves, so turbulence, basically, in the atmosphere. Gentle waves. But we know the eclipse is actually going to set up much stronger turbulence in the atmosphere.
And we’re actually going to use this eclipse to learn more about the atmospheric self by studying exactly what happens with the eclipse shadow. So that’s one piece. We actually have partnerships with NASA Ames to fly some resilient bacteria on many of the balloons. And the question here is, so actually, in the upper atmosphere, the temperature and pressure is very similar to that of the surface of Mars. So we want to be able to ask the question, how clean do the spacecraft have to be when we send them to other planets?
And this is something that this team at NASA Ames has been looking at in detail. Obviously we want to make sure we’re not bringing any Earth organism to another planet and contaminating it. And so we’re bringing this organism that we think might actually flourish in Martian-like conditions. And so we can test that in the upper atmosphere. And during the eclipse, actually, the amount of sunlight is similar to that on the surface of Mars. So it’s a really great chance to, on a whole bunch of balloons, get this other really interesting piece of space biology data.
And then the final piece is sending all of our data with a project sponsored by Google called the Eclipse Megamovie Project. And here, they’re actually taking the very last little moments of light, called Bailey’s beads, and taking lots and lots of images to examine that exactly to be able to look at that exact surface of the sun. So the exact size of the sun, and exactly what’s going on the surface of the sun, which you can only do during a total solar eclipse.
IRA FLATOW: Levi, you can see Dr. Des Jardins is not excited at all about this project. What excites you most about it?
LEVI WILLMETH: So our team shares her enthusiasm a lot. We’ve met with Angela at Montana State there, and she is contagiously enthusiastic about it, which is great.
For us, our team spent a good portion of the year sort of developing the ship station piece of it. We kind of started with a system that could kind of point from the shore, but we also needed to develop a system that could handle the motion of the ship. Kind of rolling with the waves, the actual movement of the ship, and so we spent a good part of our year kind of developing that system, as opposed to a scientific payload, as well.
IRA FLATOW: We have all kinds of links on our web site, people. This is exciting, very exciting to hear about this. And people can read more about the Balloon Project and other experiments on our website at sciencefriday.com/balloon.
I wish I had more time to talk about the tides with you, Dr. Des Jardins, but we’ll have to wait for another time because the moon and sun are aligning. Something is going to happen.
Dr. Des Jardins is leader of the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project, Assistant Research Professor in physics at Montana State University in Bozeman. And Levi Willmeth is a computer science student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
LEVI WILLMETH: Thank you for having us.
ANGELA DES JARDINS: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.