An hour before the moon passed directly over the sun at exactly 1:22 pm CDT on Monday in Paducah, Kentucky, during the Great American Eclipse, a team of University of Bridgeport (UB) engineering students worked with deliberate precision to launch a high-altitude weather balloon tens of thousands of feet into a darkening sky.
As they filled the balloon with helium on the grounds of Western Kentucky Community Technical College, the moon’s shadow raced across the United States at 2,000 miles per hour. The team worked quickly; the balloon would have to reach an altitude of 60,000 feet just as the moon crossed directly over the sun for no more than two minutes.
By the end of Monday, UB School of Engineering graduate students successfully launched that and four other high-altitude balloons as part of a national campaign by academic researchers and NASA to capture breathtaking aerial images and scientific data during the rare celestial event.
One of the balloons carried a visual recording device and something called a bacteria coupon, which looked like a flattened tin can. During the eclipse, conditions in the stratosphere “would be similar to Mars,” creating an auspicious opportunity to examine the bacteria, explained UB student Rochem Thashanath Sajeevan.
Four other balloons ferried instruments called radiosondes. They collected data that would shed light about the eclipse’s effect on the atmosphere. Those balloons were launched separately, at five minutes before the eclipse, during eclipse totality, 30 minutes after totality, and five minutes before the end of the eclipse. Data was transmitted back to the UB ground team in real time.
“I’m so exited,” said mechanical engineering student and team leader Mahi Kumar Rakkappan.
Monday’s events culminated more than a year of preparation by UB students, who are part of the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSCG). Other CTSGC members include students from Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School in Bridgeport and the University of Hartford.
For months, and under the direction of UB engineering professor Jani Macari Pallis PhD, the students built, programmed, and reprogrammed equipment. More recently, they conducted test launches at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, on the UB campus, and at the University of Hartford.
Similar training took place nationwide by more than 50 other teams who launched other high-altitude balloons on Monday. Like UB, their academic researchers collected data and helping to live stream the event for NASA.
“It’s an unprecedented scientific achievement; academic researchers from across the country are collecting data that will provide much-awaited answers about the effect of the eclipse on our atmosphere,” said Pallis, PhD. “I’m so proud of our students, and I know we’re all humbled and thrilled to be part of this truly one-in-a-lifetime day.”
The UB team left Bridgeport on Saturday and drove straight to Paducah over the weekend. To pass the time and stay awake during 18-hour stretches of driving, they sang boisterous, out-of-tune pop songs, drank endless cups of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, and talked about their childhoods.
“We were bonded before, but now we’re really bonded,” joked UB mechanical engineering student Shiva Sundaram, who graduates in December. “Even though we were so tired, we’re so excited for today’s launch.”
Others were, too. As the UB team set up their command station on Monday, local media stopped by to conduct TV interviews while passersby took photos and asked the UB students questions about their work. When team members rolled heavy tanks of helium onto the field, then inflated and carefully attached payloads to balloons, cameras clicked away.
With each countdown and each launch, came cheers and applause. But the real show was the moon, which began inched its way in front of the sun at 1:22 p.m. As a sliver of a shadow turned into a bite, then finally, covered the moon in totality, laughter and noise suddenly stopped. Lights automatically turned on in a distant parking lot. Crickets began their nocturnal hum, and Paducah seemed to be dipped in a vat of watercolor blue.
“There are no words,” someone murmured, gazing at a site so beautiful that it inspired young and old to forget everything but the majesty and mystery of the heavens above.
And then, some two minutes later, the sun blasted its white-hot rays from behind the moon, like a headstrong child pushing to break free.
“Do it again!” someone joked.
Back at the command station, students refocused on laptop screens to monitor data transmissions and locations from the balloons, now headed high above the Ohio River.
Then, all-too-quickly, it was bright again. Eclipse-seekers began packing up beach chairs and heading home. But there was one more balloon to launch before the eclipse was officially over.
“Ready?” Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School student Ryan Dang asked. The highschoolers, accompanied by UB students Soresh Moru and Sam Zhang, headed to the field one last time. Without a word, they went to work, hauling another tank of helium to the launch field, filling the last balloon until it strained to break free from their grasp on its tether. A final check of knots, and then, on the count of three, they set the the fourth radiosonde on its journey some 80,000 feet into space.
Whoosh! And it was up, up, and away. With a high five and smiles, the team returned to the rest of the group. Larry Reed, an adviser from the Discovery Museum, looked at everyone. There were no more balloons to loft. It was scorching hot. No one had eaten a proper meal in days. They had been driving practically nonstop and today’s journey started so many months ago.
“Now you all have a story to tell your grandchildren,” Reed said. “Good job.”
Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 5767-4625, firstname.lastname@example.org