View from the students' launched balloon.

Students in the Department of Physics, in collaboration with Dr. John Sohl and his students from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, will launch a specialized helium balloon, designed for high altitude flight, rigged with six GoPro cameras to capture the solar eclipse.

July 17, 2017
Writer: Dain Knudson

While millions of individuals plan to capture the Great American Solar Eclipse from the ground, one team of BYU-Idaho students will see the event from a different perspective-the edge of space.

Students in the Department of Physics, in collaboration with Dr. John Sohl and his students from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, will launch a specialized helium balloon, designed for high altitude flight, rigged with six GoPro cameras to capture the solar eclipse. Ryan Nielson, faculty member in Department of Physics, says this opportunity offers a unique experience for BYU-Idaho students.

"We looked at it and thought the opportunities to get students flying stuff up that high really imitates the experience they might have working for someone like NASA," Nielson said. "We also thought it would really give our students better qualifications for positions and opportunities for internships and graduate schools."

Students participating in the project also recognize the uniqueness of an opportunity such as this.

"Most of the work we do here at BYU-Idaho is coding and computational," said Aileen Godfrey, a senior from Loomis, California. Godfrey is also the team leader for the balloon project. "This project intrigued me because it is hands-on, and I think that is what interested other students as well."

While many projects in the Department of Physics only allow upperclassmen to participate because of the level of work required, projects such as these invite all students to learn and enjoy physics. From data analysis to figuring out how much gas the balloon needs, each student involved plays a role, no matter his or her experience level.

"It has been great to work with an array of students. It's been especially helpful because there are so many small things that need to be done across all knowledge levels," Godfrey said. "It has been great to have so many people to give jobs to. We have a few upperclassmen helping with some of the larger or more intensive projects, but even then they help the other students learn what they need to do so we can all be successful." 

While collaborating with Weber State, the team has been able to observe how the launch should take place, and even practice it themselves.

"During our first experience with high altitude balloon launching, we attached our camera rig onto Weber State's balloon and watched the process," Godfrey said. "We tried to absorb as much as we can, because our next flight was just us. Our flight a few days later was encouraging because although we ran into some problems, we got to see students step up, even some of the newer students."

During the eclipse, the team of students, along with Nielson, are expecting a busy day. Their plan-which depends on the weather and wind conditions that day-is to have two teams on either side of the eclipse, one to launch the balloon and one downwind to receive it. During the flight, they hope to get their balloon up to or over 100,000 feet, or 19 miles above the ground. This will allow them to not only get video of the eclipse from a unique perspective, but also to collect data that can later be compared with other organizations like NASA.

With the eclipse quickly approaching, and anticipation of the project growing, Godfrey reflected on her experience learning and working alongside other students from Weber State and BYU-Idaho.

"This is a great project with so many opportunities for students and I am really grateful to be a part of building it," Godfrey said.