This summer, darkness will fall across the face of America. Temperatures will drop and the sky will dramatically change. For the first time since 1918, a total solar eclipse will sweep across the United States. Astronomers are calling it the Great American Eclipse.
For the average spectator, a total eclipse gives us an opportunity to witness a spectacular sky show. For scientist in Rexburg, however, the eclipse offers something else: exactly 2 minutes and 17 seconds to collect as much data as possible about the sun's mostly hidden outer atmosphere.
Ryan Nielson, a BYU-Idaho Physics Department Faculty member, said that he and a team of students are flying balloons to the edge of space. These balloons are called High Altitude Balloons and can reach as high as 100,000 feet above the earth. They are also a cost effective way to transmit video or information from scientific instruments for research about the eclipse. "The balloons are meant to pop by design," he said. "The FCC will allow us to fly packages under 12 lbs as long as we have a line that will break it loose with a balloon at 50 lbs. We have to have two termination devices. The balloon popping is one of them. We will also cut a cord to separate it from the balloon."
An entire flight for these high altitude balloons takes at least two hours. So Nielson and his students will have to time the flight exactly in order to see the eclipse at its fullest. "I'm actually anxious to look at the solar corona," he said. "They say it fills a huge part of the sky during totality. It's quite an experience to see because it's always there but the sky is so bright with scattered light that it's hard to see. The sun rules our life here on earth and it's hard to take that into account considering how small it looks."
Although this high altitude balloon project is exciting, there is still a long way to go for Nielson and his students. "We are currently at a state where we are building instruments," he said. "We've ordered balloons and parts. We are also trying to measure what size parachutes we need to order. It's an interesting process."
BYU-Idaho isn't the only university using high altitude balloons to study the eclipse. There are many other universities conduct high altitude balloon flights all across the total eclipse path. Here is a video from Montana State University featuring a balloon floating at approximately 85,000 feet overlooking Montana.
Aileen Godfrey is the student leader over the project. She and Nielson believe this research opportunity will be valuable to BYU-Idaho students who are looking for internships, applying to graduate schools, as well as looking for employment. "I think it's a great resume boost," Godfrey said. "Especially for the student volunteers because most of them are freshman and sophomores so they are not necessarily looking for internships. Not only is it awesome that we are doing this but it's the first time we ever will do this project here at the school. It's been a lot of hard work trying to figure out what we are even going to do to get this thing in the air."
In a couple of weeks Nielson and his students will begin their first test flight on the balloons. We'll have more details as it becomes available.