For this first time almost a century, Americans were treated to the spectacle of a full solar eclipse crossing the continental United States. NASA reached out to universities across the country to help observe the eclipse from near space, livestream the event, collect data and provide insight. Despite not being in the direct path of the eclipse, or 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 in rocketry, high-altitude ballooning and other space pursuits. He matches nearly three decades of teaching at Temple with professional experience at NASA. This past year, he led a Senior Design group who took on the challenge of participating in this NASA eclipse high-altitude ballooning project. But according to Dr. Helferty, it almost didn't happen.
Between April—when Helferty's team was the first to train on the launch software—and August, when they arrived in Kentucky, the central video processing facility in Montana changed the software the team used to feed video.
"On Sunday, it's 97 degrees and we're doing eight hours of software updates in the middle of this baseball field. By about 1:00 in the afternoon, I was about to tell them to pack it up, this isn't happening," Helferty said. "Then, incrementally, breakthrough after breakthrough happened. By about 6:00 that night, the system was up and running."
Aided by a hard-wired Internet connection via a 200-foot extension cord run from a high school teacher's classroom to that baseball field, Dr. Helferty's team hit their launch window of 1:15. Though, even with prior planning, there was still a near-miss in the air. In the launch video, you can see a commercial airliner pass by at 30,000 feet approximately one mile away.
"The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) had my cell phone to tell us to activate our cutoff in case our balloon got too close to air traffic. We came pretty close, but they never called," Helferty said.
The balloons ascent was controlled through equal parts diligent preparation and day-of maneuvering.
"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 added. "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."
"Originally, we [student team] were going to use six different cameras and switch between cameras," Helferty 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 operated the camera, maintaining focus on the eclipse with a steady shot. The team's design also allowed it to operate one-way and keep the stream feeding.
"We were able to capture totality at the end, and the balloon popped at 100,000 feet," Helferty said.
After detailing the team's race to retrieve the payload from a Kentucky corn field like a scene pulled from Storm Chasers, Helferty noted that his research will continue past the eclipse, itself.
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.
With the next eclipse more than six years away, Helferty was already planning the next trip, which may include a 360-degree camera, others with lens filters to show the eclipse path and additional collaboration from other disciplines.
"The whole idea of this project was to get video streamed. The next one is: what do we want to do once we're up there? What's the science? I'm the engineer. I'll get you up there. I'll get you down. But what do you want to do once you're up there?"