With each solar eclipse comes a heightened level of excitement from the masses. These natural phenomena attract the attention of science lovers both young and old and help researchers make new discoveries about the sun, Earth, and our space environment.

For upcoming annular and total eclipses, NASA has implemented a data acquisition and analysis mission for STEM learners through its Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project.

“While this is a scientific endeavor for researchers, the primary goal of this project is outreach and education,” said Ginny Smith, a Ph.D. candidate studying aerospace engineering. “This is a student-run project, and the undergraduates will be gaining valuable experience working on a NASA project as well as taking lead on the planning, testing, and creation of mission protocol and fail safe procedures.” 

Virginia Tech is among 50 university teams participating in the scientific ballooning research mission during upcoming eclipses in October 2023 and April 2024. In Blacksburg, approximately 30 undergraduates will represent the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and related majors, under the direction of faculty advisor Jonathan Black, research associate Kevin Sterne, and Smith.

University teams have been divided into two tracks, performing either engineering or atmospheric science experiments during the eclipses. Those participating in the engineering track will be strategically spread out at sites along the path of the eclipse to deploy high altitude scientific weather balloons and livestream video to the NASA eclipse website. 

Balloons, flying at an altitude of approximately 75,000 feet, will capture imagery of the eclipse at totality for a completely different perspective from those viewing on the ground. “From our angle, we’ll be looking down and see the shadow of the moon move across the Earth when totality occurs,” said Smith. 

Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project organizers have distributed a standard set of equipment to the 35 engineering teams, including Raspberry-Pi based camera systems, single board computers, tracking sensors, and science payloads. 

During the eclipses, Virginia Tech plans to fly a second flight string with student-driven experiments and camera setup, which is strongly encouraged by NASA and the program. The balloons will communicate with a designated ground station throughout the flight as well as capture scientific data onboard the payload. 

Piper Won and Holly Whetzel prepare to fly their experiment at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory in April. Their project involved testing how well 3D-printed material held up when exposed to high altitude temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.
Piper Won and Holly Whetzel prepare to fly their experiment at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory in April. Their project involved testing how well 3D-printed material held up when exposed to high altitude temperatures and low atmospheric pressure. Photo courtesy of Ginny Smith.

To prepare for the upcoming missions, undergraduates have designed and built their own payloads to learn about the near-space environment, design challenges, and proper flight procedures. The group is conducting multiple practice launches at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory to prepare for the challenge of launching a balloon, achieving NASA’s project objectives, and working with the eclipse ballooning project hardware.

“Not only will they be testing all the equipment, but the students will be working on procedures, and setting standards similar to a rocket launch,” said Sterne. “We have a very narrow window, as the eclipse won’t wait on us. The students need to have precise timing down to the minute to fill the balloon, attach payloads, and get the balloon up in the air and in a position to record video.” 

The experience also sets the stage for a long-term, sustainable ballooning program at Virginia Tech. Through participation, the engineering departments involved will attain tools and best practices to build a solid infrastructure that continues far beyond the scope of this project. 

“The educational benefits stemming from this project are immeasurable,” said Sterne. “The program provided introductory course materials on running a balloon flight, and on conducting and understanding the core processes. For some of the students, this has been the first practical application to what they've seen in the classroom. So far, we’ve been able to recruit students whose involvement will span multiple years, and then they’ll be able to educate the next group coming up.”  

Group of 16 undergraduates part of the NEBP project at Virginia Tech.
A number of the undergraduates participating in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project at Virginia Tech: (from left) Brenden Lech, Liam Ortiz Montalvo, Kelly Au, Erika Ashley, Aklima Khatun, Sujay Venuganti, Piper Won, Corie Bryant, Holly Whetzel, Brian Van Dyke, Alexis Sleczkowski, Will Fischer, Jivitesh Kukreja, Clint Lanham, Nick Vander May, Allison Pitzl, and Brian Gorman. Photo courtesy of Ginny Smith.

The eclipse ballooning project program is sponsored by the NASA Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, NASA Science Mission Directorate, and NASA Balloon Program Office with support from Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering (Space@VT), the aerospace and ocean engineering department, and the electrical and computer engineering department.

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