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View Eclipse from Edge of Atmosphere with UNR Balloons


Image courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Image courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno.


Forget specialized eclipse sunglasses or telescopes to view the total solar eclipse, watch the live-stream from 100,000 feet above the earth as the high-altitude research ballooning team from the University of Nevada, Reno joins 70 other National Space Grant teams to provide a direct angle of the eclipse that has never been done before.

On Aug. 21, the United States will experience a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1918. The moon will obstruct the full disk of the sun, creating a 70-mile-wide shadow that will travel across the country from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina. Anyone within the diameter of the path will be lucky enough to view the total eclipse.

Associate professors Eric Wang of the mechanical engineering department and Jeffrey LaCombe of the chemical and materials engineering department at the University of Nevada, Reno are both part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project, and are conducting science experiments along with live-streaming the event.

During the eclipse, Wang and LaCombe’s team will be at the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls prepared to launch four balloons 100,000 feet up. Three balloons will be carrying science experiments, including two Geiger counters to measure the radiation count as it goes up and one balloon measuring light levels, air pressure, and temperature. But all eyes will be on the balloon carrying the camera payload.

“We have a couple of 360 degree cameras that we’ll be sending up, so after the eclipse we can pan and look up at the sky or down at the shadow using that footage,” Wang said. “The live camera has a wide angle shot so that’s the specific camera we’ll be streaming from. This is really a once or twice in a lifetime event, so we obviously want to capture it on film.”

The University’s Ballooning Team

“A call was sent out last year through the Nevada Space Grant talking about the nationwide coverage of this eclipse and the Space Grant teams who will be launching balloons staggered with the sun as it crosses over the United States,” Wang said. “So myself and Dr. LaCombe were invited to work on the ballooning project. There will be about 70 teams that’ll all launch with video payloads to live-stream the entirety of the eclipse.”

Wang is the associate director of the Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium and has been high-altitude ballooning at the University with LaCombe for 15 years.

“As technology has gotten better, we too have gotten a lot better, and so Dr. LaCombe and I have done about – well we stopped counting at 100, but about 120 to 150 launches,” Wang said.

Wang and LaCombe, as well as the University students who will join them, have been working hard over the last months to ensure that they have each and every bug worked out before the day of the launch.

“If you’re trying to catch an eclipse and you get it wrong, you have to wait another 40 years to get it right,” Wang said. “We’re using hydrogen rather than helium, because it’s much cheaper to manufacture, so we’ve all been trained on how to use that very flammable gas safely. We know that once our balloons reach 100,000 feet it’ll grow four times its diameter before bursting and opening its parachute to fall back down to earth. And we have the redundancies in our tracking systems to ensure we have eyes on where it lands.”

Wang and LaCombe’s team have a radio that uses line-of-sight tracking so they can receive the GPS transmission to track the balloon’s landing spot. In case the line-of-sight is broken, they also use a satellite system that reports its location.

“Obviously, there isn’t a guarantee that we’ll get the balloon back. We have a redundant tracking system that gives us the best opportunity, but, for example, we still have a balloon lost in the Fallon bombing range-I’m sure it’s been used as a target for years-so there’s always a chance,” Wang said.

Background on the Eclipse

The Eclipse Ballooning Project will begin live streaming from each teams’ balloon at 10:15 a.m. Reno will not be in the path of totality, but a partial eclipse will begin on Aug. 21 at 9:04 a.m. and reach its peak at 10:20 a.m. with about 83 percent of the sun covered.

Although the last total solar eclipse took place in 1979, it wasn’t visible for the contiguous United States. The eclipse next week will mark the first time a solar eclipse will be visible for the contiguous U.S. since 1918, and it won’t happen again until 2045. At Wang and LaCombe’s station in Idaho Falls, NASA has predicted 500,000 people will be in attendance to watch the eclipse in a town with a population of about 60,000.

“It’s sort of like the reverse of Burning Man,” Wang said. “It will be a traffic nightmare, but there’s a reason why these people are coming to see it. We’ll be able to see Mercury, which we never get to see, and the stars will come out. Our last eclipse was an annular eclipse, so it really only became dim. This is going to be nighttime level darkness in the path of totality, and I really encourage people to see this happening however they can.”

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