MSU Presents Early Results of Solar Eclipse Ballooning Project

During the August 2017 total solar eclipse, the planetary boundary layer—also known as the atmospheric boundary layer (ABL) —sank to roughly 2,500 feet, according to Angela Des Jardins, principal investigator of the Eclipse Ballooning Project. Des Jardins, who is also director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, was one of five scientists on a panel presenting eclipse findings, this week, at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in New Orleans, which is billed as “the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world.”

Des Jardins discussed initial results from an Eclipse Ballooning Project experiment that used devices called radiosondes to study how the eclipse affected temperature, pressure and humidity in an area of Earth’s atmosphere called the planetary boundary layer, where the absorption of sunlight by the ground generates wind and other weather.

“The sudden blocking of the sun during an eclipse has a huge effect because it reduces the light and changes the temperature of the ground and air,” said NASA’s lead scientist for the 2017 total solar eclipse, Lika Guhathakurta, who introduced the press conference.

 

Angela Des Jardins-MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

More than a dozen Eclipse Ballooning Project teams launched a total of 40 radiosonde-equipped, helium-filled balloons that gathered data while ascending to altitudes of 70,000 feet or more. A Montana Space Grant Consortium team that included students from MSU, University of Montana, Chief Dull Knife College and Miles Community College launched 19 of the balloons before, during and after the eclipse from locations near Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

“Analysis of the atmospheric data from all the sites will conclude in the coming months,” said Des Jardins, who also showed videos taken by some of the 55 Eclipse Ballooning Project teams that launched larger balloons equipped with an MSU-designed camera system. The videos, many of which were livestreamed to NASA’s website during the eclipse, show a space-like perspective of the moon’s shadow crossing the Earth’s surface.

NASA’s solar eclipse coverage, which included the Eclipse Ballooning Project livestream as well as other video feeds, was viewed by more people than any other NASA broadcast, Guhathakurta said.

Ian Fleming, MSU student. Photo courtesy of Dan Cobb

Des Jardins also discussed a part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project in which 34 teams attached small samples of harmless bacteria to their balloon payloads in order to study how microbes hitching a ride on spacecraft might behave on Mars.

“Scientists from NASA Ames (Research Center) and Cornell (University) are busy analyzing the data and will have results soon,” she said.

Also at the press conference, scientists from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, National Solar Observatory, Virginia Tech and the Southwest Research Institute discussed results from experiments that, among other things, captured detailed images of the Sun’s super-heated atmosphere and measured the eclipse’s effects on the transmission of radio waves through the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Balloon launched with its payload. Photo courtesy MSU
Montana State University-Photo of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse taken from a high-altitude balloon launched near Rexburg, Idaho.

Des Jardins, also an assistant research professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, initiated the Eclipse Ballooning Project in 2014 as a way to engage students in the Space Grant network with a significant, hands-on project. MSU undergraduates, primarily engineering majors, played a leading role in designing the ballooning system and training teams from across the country.

“The eclipse ballooning project was a resounding success,” she said. “For me, it was even more powerful because students were involved in every aspect of the project.”

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