Twice a day, 365 days a year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service launches weather balloons to provide above-ground meteorological data.

The powerhouse suspended underneath these balloons is an instrument called a radiosonde, which measures environmental conditions like temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and provides GPS location, altitude, wind direction and speed. That data are transmitted to ground stations and used to assist in weather forecasts.

But how does a total solar eclipse affect the atmosphere? To find out, a Connecticut Space Grant Consortium team, including faculty and students from the University of Bridgeport (UB), will launch a radiosonde to capture essential data on August 21, when the moon will completely block the sun over parts of the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina.

The space grant team also is launching two other balloons to live stream the August 21 eclipse.

To prepare for the event, the UB team conducted one of its final tests on July 31 by launching a weather balloon carrying a radiosonde at the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport, CT. Within seconds, data was relayed back to a ground station as the balloon ascended up to 51,000 feet before losing contact.

“On eclipse day we’ll attempt to launch four radiosondes in succession: five minutes before the eclipse begins—the first contact, 40 minutes before eclipse totality, five minutes before totality, and 30 minutes after totality,” said UB mechanical engineering graduate student Shiva Sundaram.

“The team needs to be perfectly organized to fill, launch, and gather data on that many balloons in that amount of time,” added mechanical engineering graduate Maheshwari Kumar Rakkappan.

Monday’s test launch is part of a national project that began more than two years ago and involves academic researchers across the U.S. who on August 21, will study the effects of the eclipse on atmospheric temperature fluctuations. The radiosonde effort is being led by Jennifer Fowler, assistant director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium and director of Autonomous Aerial Systems at the University of Montana.

“In essence, the eclipse will be like the sun setting three times faster than it normally does,” said Fowler.  “The eclipse will cause temperature changes and variations in the Earth’s boundary layer [the lowest part of the troposphere, closest to the Earth]. As the balloons rise we expect the temperatures to be colder and the data collected will help verify our predictions.

The eclipse gives us the opportunity to conduct the largest geographic campaign of balloon flights ever undertaken. The focus on increased spatial and temporal resolution of data for scientific and forecasting purposes is extraordinary. With cross agency collaborations we have the potential for this to be the largest geographic radiosonde campaign ever undertaken.”

“We’ll be in the area of the ‘greatest (longest) eclipse’ in western Kentucky,” said UB professor Jani Macari Pallis, Ph.D. “In addition to University of Bridgeport and University of Hartford students, high school students from Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnus Campus in Bridgeport, CT, and our Kentucky colleagues, led by professor Tracy Knowles from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, will assist with the radiosonde testing.”

One of the project goals is to train participants in conducting surface and upper air observations using radiosondes.  Engagement in these launches encourages students to follow STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) paths through college. The STEM content resulting from this project is not limited to the time-frame immediately following the launch, but introduces a permanent dataset that can be analyzed by students, extending the impact of the flights to future classrooms as well.

Eclipse totality starts on the Oregon coast at about 1:20 PM EST on August 21, 2017 and ends about 2:50 PM EST on the South Carolina coast.

Live footage from the camera will be available for public viewing on August 21 at NASA’s website, http://nasa.gov

 

Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, lgeary@bridgeport.edu