UA students part of NASA project to capture solar eclipse from near space

Students in Project Fenrir prepare for a test balloon launch from the University of Alabama campus in April. The students will launch a balloon to record Monday's total solar eclipse on video and measure high-altitude temperatures as part of the NASA project. [Photo Credit: University of Alabama]

A group of students at the University of Alabama plan to launch a balloon to take video of the solar eclipse next week as part of a nationwide science project led by NASA.

Similar to a weather balloon, the UA balloon should rise 100,000 feet in the air, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth, and send live video of the eclipse to a website as part of the NASA Space Grant network’s Eclipse Ballooning Project.

With 55 balloon teams, the NASA project aims to livestream the eclipse over the internet as it travels southeast across the continental United States on Monday.

“The first time I heard about this project, I thought it was amazing,” said Haley Miller, a team member and senior from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who is studying aerospace engineering. “I’ve never seen an eclipse, so this is just a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

The UA students will launch during the eclipse from the Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The eclipse begins at 12:14 p.m. Central time and ends at 3:07 p.m. The total eclipse portion of the event is from 1:43 to 1:45 p.m.

Although the moon will cover about 90 percent of the sun over Tuscaloosa, there will not be a total eclipse in Alabama, so the students chose a location inside the so-called path of totality.

Morgan Minton, team adviser and instructor in the UA Freshman Engineering Program, said the seven students on the project are learning how to apply skills learned in the classroom to a real-world problem.

“These skills they pick up along the way and refine are things that will make them competitive when they enter the work environment,” Minton said. “These are skills that transcend just a high-altitude balloon project.”

The balloon will carry two cameras, one pointed at the ground to capture the moon’s shadow and another pointed at the sun. In a novel approach among the NASA teams, the students added a control moment gyroscope to steady the camera on the eclipse and shadow, even if the balloon spins, a common occurrence, Miller said.

The balloon will also carry instruments to measure the temperature outside the balloon and inside the payload to gauge the eclipse’s effect on temperature at a high altitude, Miller said.

The students will be able to track the balloon as it flies, and have built in several redundancies to ensure the balloon is retrieved. The balloon should record the eclipse even if communication with the livestream breaks, Miller said.

The students had three test flights since 2016, including two in the spring. The biggest unknown is weather, as lightning or heavy rain would mean scrubbing the launch, Miller said.

The UA team is named Project Fenrir after a wolf in Norse mythology foretold to swallow the sun. Along with Miller, the team includes:

  • Evan Terry, a senior in telecommunications and film from Winter Springs, Florida.
  • Chandler Nichols, a junior in aerospace engineering from Chattanooga.
  • Ryan Burns, a junior in aerospace engineering from Louisville.
  • Annelise Frank, a junior with a concentration in computer engineering from Chicago.
  • Danielle Carter, a senior in aerospace engineering from Winfield.
  • Wesley Cooper, a junior in mechanical engineering from Louisville.

Republished with permission of Alabama NewsCenter.