As crowds jockeyed to watch the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in nearly a century, a team of Montana State University students focused on creating an unprecedented, 80,000-foot view of the celestial event for a worldwide audience as part of a project that MSU started in 2014.
At the airport here, the students pointed radio dishes at helium-filled balloons equipped with cameras, joining 54 other teams stationed along the eclipse’s path in an effort to livestream aerial video to NASA’s website.
Teams from Oregon’s North Medford High School, New Mexico State University, Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee and the University of Alabama in Huntsville were among those participating in the MSU-coordinated Eclipse Ballooning Project.
Like the other 54 teams, the MSU team launched their balloons about an hour before the peak of the eclipse so that the cameras would reach the desired altitude and have the best view during the roughly two-minute period when the moon completely obscured the sun.
"Everything on our end was successful," said Sara Stafford, a junior majoring in electrical engineering at MSU who helped launch the MSU balloons. Using predictions for prevailing winds, she helped select the MSU team's launch site at Camas National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 30 miles northwest of Rexburg.
"We got all our balloons in the air," she said.
The MSU team launched a total of four balloons: two equipped with the standard live video system, one with a specialized infrared camera for capturing images of the sun’s atmosphere as part of a student-led experiment, and one with a 360-degree camera provided by collaborators from University of Brasilia in Brazil who came to Idaho for the eclipse.
As the moon appeared to slowly consume the sun, the MSU team tapped away on laptops under an awning at the airport as they attempted to connect with the video signal from their balloons.
Meanwhile, other team members, friends and family watched a large television screen that displayed video captured by the Central Washington University team, which launched from Culver, Oregon. That video showed the curvature of the planet against the blackness of space, and the shadow of the approaching eclipse.
The MSU team, as well as the team from University of North Dakota that joined MSU at the Rexburg airport, struggled to establish their video connection, possibly because of an increase in radio noise that they observed.
In this photo provided by Montana State University the corona of the first coast to coast total solar eclipse in over a century is captured Monday, August 21, 2017 at the Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Hamer, ID. (Kelly Gorham/Montana State University)
As the moon aligned with the sun and plunged Rexburg into eerie daytime darkness, the crowd here let out whoops of excitement, watching in wonder as the sun's wispy atmosphere, called the corona, became visible.
When the sun shifted enough to again reveal the sun's bright rays, the MSU team gathered around the display screen, watching the 80,000-foot view of the eclipse on video captured by the Wyoming Space Grant Consortium's team, called the Space Cowboys.
"I'm glad it worked for someone," said Casey Coffman, a senior majoring in computer engineering at MSU. "That's all I wanted."
"My favorite part was when we just decided to go out and watch the eclipse," he said.
"That was really cool," said Denise Buckner, student leader for the University of North Dakota high-altitude ballooning team who is earning her master's in space studies.
"Even though we didn't get live video, overall it was a success," she said, adding that their team used the opportunity to send an ozone sensor to near-space as part of an experiment to observe the atmospheric effects of the eclipse.
"We couldn't have done it without all of the teams coming together like this," she said.
"I'm excited that this was the first time that anyone has ever livestreamed aerial video of a total solar eclipse using high-altitude balloons," said Angela Des Jardins, an assistant research professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science and director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium at MSU. "It was also the first time that there has been such a large-scale coordinated launch of high-altitude balloons from coast to coast.”
"One of the exciting things now is that the teams will retrieve their payloads and upload the video and photos," she said. The camera system on the balloons were designed to record, as well as livestream, the view of the eclipse from 80,000 feet, she explained.
Des Jardins first proposed the Eclipse Ballooning Project in 2014 as a way to bring together high-altitude ballooning programs across the country and provide a unique perspective of the 2017 solar eclipse while engaging students in hands-on learning.
One of the MSU balloons also carried a sample of bacteria as part of a NASA-sponsored experiment to better understand how such hardy microorganisms might fare on Mars after hitching a ride on spacecraft. The atmosphere at 80,000 feet resembles the surface atmosphere on Mars, and the dim lighting created by the eclipse adds further similarity, according to Des Jardins.
NASA distributed the bacteria samples, embedded on small metal tags, to 34 of the project teams and will collect the samples once the balloons’ cameras and other equipment parachute to Earth.
Since 2014, MSU students, primarily undergraduates in the College of Engineering, have worked to design and fabricate the cameras, balloon-tracking system, software, receiver dishes and other equipment. The project received a significant grant from NASA in 2015, and the live video ballooning system was distributed to the other teams at workshops held at MSU in 2016. Other teams helped to test and refine the system.
There was a sense that intensity of the experience crowned what has, for many of the students, been years of hard work.
"I was just excited to see the eclipse, and after that, to see video from teams across the country who had a successful video stream," said Micaela Moreni, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at MSU. "That was amazing."