CLEMSON, South Carolina – The “Great American Eclipse” set the stage for a number of experiments on Aug. 21, one being the release of two high-altitude balloons from the campus of Clemson University.

Richard Eason, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maine, was project leader for the experiment. Each balloon’s main goal was to capture images and video of the earth from 100,000 feet above ground using a variety of cameras. Eason’s team was comprised of UMaine lecturer Andrew Sheaff, lead undergraduate students Cameron Sullivan and Derek Haas, and more than a dozen other students. Together, they worked to live-stream video of the eclipse to the Watt Family Innovation Center and also onto the Internet, where the general public was able to witness a view of the eclipse from a unique perspective. The team was one of 55 that launched balloons from sites across the nation during the Aug. 21 eclipse in a project conceived and managed by Montana State University.

“Overall, I think the launch itself and the recovery went pretty well,” Eason said. “We recovered all of the payloads and we had good video from some of the cameras, though we did lose a parachute in a tree.”

Back home at UMaine, Eason teaches a class on high-altitude ballooning that allows first- and second-year students the chance to apply their knowledge to an open-ended problem. The students work as a team to build the cargo that the balloons lift above the clouds. They also assemble motors, circuit boards and other electrical necessities for powering and locating the balloons. Sullivan and Haas led these charges for the experiment held during the eclipse.

high altitude image of campus

Eason’s balloons caught images from 100,000 feet above Clemson University.
Image Credit: UMaineHAB (funded by Maine Space Grant Consortium)

“My role was kind of the technical, background stuff,” Sheaff said. “I made sure things worked the right way at the right time, and I provided mentorship for the students. At Clemson, I coordinated with the folks there to get the video feed up and working.”

In addition to a lost parachute, the team ran into a few other minor difficulties.

“The ground station was a little too close to buildings to get a strong signal, but the student crew that was there did a good job in trying to get it going,” Sheaff said.

“There was an infrared camera that shut down after taking a few images, maybe because of the heat of the day, and we had one camera that didn’t get turned on properly,” Eason added.

In a test arranged by NASA to examine the resiliency of life, one of the payloads flown by Eason’s team on Aug. 21 contained benign bacterial spores.

“There were two sets of spores: one set went up with the balloon and one was left on the ground as a control where we tried to keep it at similar conditions in terms of the sunlight it was exposed to,” Eason said. “The general idea is that the atmosphere up at 100,000 feet is very similar to the atmosphere on Mars as far as temperature, pressure, maybe even solar radiation goes. So, NASA wanted to see how the spores behaved during flight.”

One balloon carried bacterial spores to test the resiliency of life.

One balloon carried bacterial spores to test the resiliency of life.
Image Credit: UMaineHAB (funded by Maine Space Grant Consortium)

The results will benefit the long-standing effort by NASA – and the dream of sci-fi enthusiasts – to send life to our nearest, potentially habitable planetary neighbor. Eason’s crew was one in a subset of teams flying balloons on eclipse day that contributed to NASA’s experiment; though, this kind of partnership is nothing new to the UMaine ballooning team.

“We have payloads that public schools attach to our balloons, which send seeds and plants up into high space. Then we recover them and give them back to the schools,” Sheaff said. “They’ll see if the plants continued to grow, if the seeds germinated, that sort of stuff. We actually do quite a bit of that.”

Although the main payloads and ground tracking system were developed by Montana State University, Eason’s team made a number of modifications and added several other cameras and experiments to their balloons.

“We uploaded our images to a common website that all the teams are using,” Eason said. “We’re working on making some video clips of the eclipse shadow moving across the earth. But we’re an engineering department, so our focus is a little more about working on the electronics of doing these experiments and gathering the data, leaving it to others to do the more publishable science.”

Funding for the high-altitude ballooning project was provided by the NASA Science Mission Directorate under grant number NNX16AB84G. The Maine Space Grant Consortium also contributed by providing funds for Eason’s ballooning course at U. Maine.