Solar Eclipse Sparks New Heights in Ballooning

This summer, for this first time almost a century, Americans will be treated to the spectacle of a full solar eclipse crossing the continental United States. For this rare event, NASA reached out to schools across the country to create ways to help observe the eclipse, collect data, and provide insight. Despite not being in the direct path of the eclipse, and not having a formal aerospace program, Temple received an invitation to participate, largely due to one important faculty member.

Dr. John Helferty, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is an expert of rocketry, high-altitude ballooning, and other pursuits involving space. He matches nearly three decades of teaching at Temple with professional experience at NASA. Less experienced was the Senior Design group who took on the challenge of participating the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project.

Through a NASA grant, Dr. Helferty and his team worked on a camera payload for the capture and livestream of the solar eclipse that will cross the continent in August. Dr. Helferty challenged the group to find a simpler version of the standard design to travel to near-space altitudes and capture the event. The result? The team broke ballooning altitude records in a test run this spring. This was in addition to winning the design contest that concludes the College’s year-long senior capstone project. Helferty remarked this was a huge leap forward for his work at Temple, noting he was “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Dr. Helferty and his students began working on the project in 2015, when NASA announced the project and sought partners from various fields to collect data with various devices. Helferty has worked with ballooning teams for over a decade, he's never seen a project of this magnitude during his tenure. Teams across the US will be sending cameras 90,000 to 130,000 feet in the atmosphere as the eclipse goes from the Pacific Northwest, across the Great Plains, and travels through the South. “Stabilizing cameras and getting a still image from a payload at 100,000 feet as the camera’s moving is not a trivial thing to do,” Helferty noted in his office. “The focus of this was to get balloons up there, get visual data down so your average Joe can see it live on TV, at different locations in the United States.”

The contingent traveled to Montana State last summer for training and to meet with NASA and partner teams. The central plains schools have one resource that’s lacking for an east coast city school like Temple: accessible open space. Dr. Helferty’s group had to travel out to central Pennsylvania for their testing sessions, where there’s more open land to launch and retrieve, away from Philadelphia and the busy airspace from a major East Coast airline hub.

In addition to the challenge of this unprecedented event, preparing an inexperienced team challenged his teaching acumen. An early test run didn’t even get off the ground (the balloon lacked sufficient helium). However, the quartet’s lack of experience gave them the ability to keep an open mind. Instead of marching them towards a predetermined solution, he let his students lead and served as a guide to keep them on course.

The three electronic engineering majors and one mechanical engineering major created something novel when Helferty called on them to find a better solution. “Originally, we [student team] were going to use six different cameras, and switch between cameras,” he recalled. “Each camera would be looking, some would have half of the eclipse or half the sun, others may have three quarters of it, they would switch images. The whole idea I said to them was, ‘Wait a minute, can we solve this problem through this communications system with one single camera? Let’s go down this path because I think we can. No one else has ever done it.’” Using raspberry pi microchips to operate, the ground crew can operate the camera, maintaining focus on the eclipse with a steady shot. The team’s design also allows it to operate one-way, should ground communication fail, and keep the stream feeding.

A simpler camera system offers a few advantages. Firstly, it’s easier to design and build. The student team built it over the spring semester and had chances to test it, culminating in a launch that saw the camera reach 90,000 feet on April 11, transmitting breathtaking visuals to the ground team that were recorded and turned into a video. The lighter payload allows Temple to invite outside groups to join their payload to conduct experiments during the launch and flight in August. Dr. Helferty wants to keep this payload around eight to ten pounds, which will make it safer to other aircraft while in flight and later descending. Their innovative model received attention from their peer groups through the NASA newsletter. “This group went from zero to 60 in a hurry,” Dr. Helferty remarked.

Even though the eclipse will be in August and his team graduated in May, Dr. Helferty’s research won’t end when the payload returns to ground. He’ll present his work in October at the 8th Annual Academic High-Altitude Conference in Minneapolis, as will many who participated in this event. He knows this experience will give his work a boost for future groups and projects, expanding understanding of solar activity, high-altitude data collection, and weather applications. Future Owls will have a boost in their pursuits, "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Watch the NASA livestream event

- Marco Cerino