MSU project explores edge of space

Watch live solar eclipse

A Montana State University project, aimed at providing live coverage from the edge of space of the first total solar eclipse to occur in the United States since 1979, was presented this week at a national press conference of leaders in solar science.

Angela Des Jardins, director of MSU’s Montana Space Grant Consortium and Montana NASA EPSCoR, discussed MSU’s NASA Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project at the Solar Physics Division meeting held Thursday, June 2, in Boulder, Colorado. Des Jardins was one of four expert panelists sharing their efforts to engage and inform the public about the Great American Eclipse, which will occur next year.

On Aug. 21, 2017, observers along a path from Oregon to South Carolina will witness a total solar eclipse. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is both perfectly in line between Earth and the sun and is close enough to Earth to completely block out the sun. Observers in the rest of the country will witness a partial solar eclipse. This will be the first solar eclipse since 1776 with a path completely in the U.S.

The ballooning project, led by MSU’s Montana Space Grant Consortium, involves more than 50 student teams from 30 states, who will work together to provide live video and still images of the total solar eclipse from near space to the NASA website by way of cameras attached to high-altitude balloons. The balloons, which can reach up to 100,000 feet, will be released from nearly two dozen locations along the path of the total eclipse.

Des Jardins came up with the idea of live-streaming the eclipse to take advantage of the Space Grant network and collective expertise of the ballooning groups across the country. MSU students and staff developed and put together the systems the teams will use. The systems include a ground station with tracking antennas controlled by an attached computer, a live video balloon payload, a live still-image payload, an iridium-tracking modem and flight termination control.

In May, eight ballooning teams gathered at MSU for a workshop to build their systems and practice for the big event. In July, 40 additional teams will come to MSU to attend the primary training workshop.

Images of total solar eclipses from space have only been captured a handful of times, Des Jardins said, so the live images captured by the cameras will provide a new perspective of the eclipse not seen by most people.

“To be able to see the shadow of the moon coming toward you gives you a profound understanding of the amazing coincidence that is a total solar eclipse,” she said. “It’s going to be a really fantastic experience for everybody who witnesses it in person, but to be able to see it live on the internet or on NASA TV from the space perspective is going to be just fantastic.”

Other panelists who presented at the conference were Shadia Habbal, co-leader of the American Astronomical Society’s 2017 Eclipse Task Force and professor at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy; Gordon Emslie, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Western Kentucky University; and Jay Pasachoff, professor of astronomy at Williams College and veteran eclipse chaser.

“The 2017 total solar eclipse will be one of the best opportunities to ignite the human sense of wonder,” Des Jardins said. “We’re really excited about the project because nothing like this has ever been done before – live video, coordinated from 50 balloons at the edge of space, all in 90 minutes – as a total solar eclipse moves across the country.”

For more information about the NASA Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, visit

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