CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of students from Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College will board OSU’s research vessel Pacific Storm early in the morning of Aug. 21 and venture 30 miles offshore, then launch a high-altitude balloon that will soar some 80,000 feet into the atmosphere.
There it will record and transmit some of the first images of the total solar eclipse as it traverses across the United States. The video will be part of a project by NASA and the National Space Grant program to capture images of the moon’s shadow across the country from a near-space perspective.
“It’s really a thrill to be first in line for this rare event,” said Jack Barth, who directs the Marine Studies Initiative at Oregon State University. “It is a bit of a technical and logistical challenge, but it also is a tremendous opportunities for students from OSU and Linn-Benton Community College.”
There is a method to the team’s madness in going out into the ocean to capture the images, according to Levi Willmeth, who began designing some of the instrumentation for the project as a student at LBCC before transferring to Oregon State’s College of Engineering.
“Our goal is to be right on the coastline to get video of the shadow on the water, and as it first touches down on land,” Willmeth said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
The idea for the project originated four years ago at a national meeting of Space Grant directors. Toby Dittrich, a physics professor at Portland Community College and associate director for the Oregon Space Grant Consortium, proposed developing a national collaborative effort to develop STEM research and education, centering on the 2017 solar eclipse.
At the same time, the Oregon Space Grant program – which is headquartered at Oregon State – launched an initiative to broaden its engagement with Oregon community colleges. One of those efforts was at Linn-Benton Community College, where a space science student club was formed to work on NASA-related projects in collaboration with the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum.
In 2016, Oregon Space Grant sponsored several community college teams to attend an eclipse-related high-altitude balloon workshop hosted by Montana Space Grant. At that point, NASA stepped in and identified the project as a key component of its Solar Eclipse programs and provided funding for hardware to launch the balloons and capture the images.
“Then corporate sponsors joined in and a commitment was made that the Space Grant eclipse video feed would be the primary story on NASA-TV the day of the eclipse,” said Jack Higginbotham, director of Oregon Space Grant. “With Oregon being the first in line, we needed a strong balloon and hardware team to give us the greatest chance of success.”
LBCC was chosen to represent Oregon Space Grant and NASA, working with students and researchers at Oregon State to capture the moment when the umbra, or moon’s shadow on the Earth’s surface, crosses the Oregon Coast near Depoe Bay and begins its transit across the U.S.
Linn-Benton physics professor Greg Mulder proposed launching the balloon from offshore, giving the students the best chance of having their balloon be directly overhead when the eclipse first hits shore. That’s when OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences stepped in and offered the R/V Pacific Storm for the project.
Two biennia ago, the Oregon Legislature in an effort to invest in local marine-related research and support local vessels, provided funding to purchase 12 days at sea aboard the R/V Oceanus operated by Oregon State. With the Oceanus in Alaska in August, Barth said, the college decided to use a portion of the funds to use the Pacific Storm – a former fishing boat retrofitted for research – for the eclipse project.
“We’re excited to have the state-supported ship time to help the LBCC and OSU students carry out this exciting project,” Barth said. “That legislative appropriation continues to pay dividends, allowing a variety of research to take place offshore and providing opportunities to a variety of Oregon students.
“Since the funding began, we’ve received $300,000 a year and leveraged more than $5 million in federal funding for research.”
Higginbotham said the launch team has made several trial runs and is almost ready for the Aug. 21 eclipse. Several other Oregon community colleges are involved, he noted, including students from Oregon Coast Community College and Southwest Oregon Community College, who will provide shore-based logistical support.
“We’re hoping the LBCC balloon lands on shore and the students from those two community colleges can recover it,” Higginbotham said. “If so, we will offer the balloon and payload as artifacts for display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, where many of the students got their start on the project.”