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Maryland students to study eclipse’s effect on atmosphere

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Monday, April 8, 2024   

As solar eclipse spectators are gathering in the path of totality, teams of students from Maryland and around the nation are preparing to launch instruments to study the phenomenon.

This afternoon, dozens of teams participating in the NASA supported Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project will launch high altitude weather balloons hauling instruments into the sky to study the eclipse's effect on the atmosphere. A team from the University of Maryland will launch two balloons from a location near Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Mary Bowden, senior lecturer of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, said there are numerous engineering lessons.

"All of the learning about how to design payloads that will work at altitude, and in the low temperature and low-pressure environment up there at altitude, and then putting them together and inflating a balloon and tracking a balloon and all that, there's a lot of engineering there," Bowden outlined. "That is really a wonderful educational experience."

The Maryland team is part of the University of Maryland Nearspace program, which has been conducting multiple balloon launches each semester for nearly 20 years. Even if skies are overcast, the balloons will fly well above the clouds, livestreaming video to YouTube.

Balloon teams have the opportunity to investigate several different scientific questions including how heat moves through the atmosphere. The Maryland team has been conducting practice launches in the months leading up to today's eclipse. Bowden pointed out in addition to monitoring forecasts of wind speed at higher altitudes, trying to study the eclipse has the team focused on timing.

"One of the trickiest parts of this is that we need to launch the balloon such that it is at altitude at totality," Bowden explained. "You have to figure out how much helium to put in the balloon to get a certain ascent rate to make sure it's going up just at the right speed, so that it is at altitude. And for us, we're shooting for about 70,000 to 80,000 feet."

The team tracks the payload during the flight and after with multiple technologies including using Iridium satellites, as well as ham radio frequencies. After the eclipse, the team will activate a remote device to cut the payload loose and allow it to parachute back to the ground. Balloon teams select the recovery location and choose open fields or farmland rather than forests or cities.

Bowden noted sometimes, recovery is the hardest part.

"We can usually locate exactly where they've landed, even to the point of walking up to somebody's house and saying, 'We just landed our payloads in your backyard. Would you allow us to go get them?'" Bowden recounted. "That is the last step of the flight. And sometimes the most stressful is basically recovering the payload."


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