Moonshadow

While millions of spectators watched the skies during the total eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, a team of PSU engineering students watched the Earth from the edge of space.

The team – Rihana Mungin, Harmony Ewing and Olea Stevens – were part of a nationwide NASA-funded project to send weather balloons more than 100,000 feet into the sky to photograph the eclipse shadow as it moved across the United States. The project involved 55 college and high school teams, all of which launched balloons along the eclipse path, which started near Lincoln City and ended in South Carolina. 

In addition to the NASA project, the PSU team launched other balloons as part of their senior capstone project. The balloons, equipped with high-resolution digital cameras, hovered from different altitudes, giving a multi-dimensional view of the event. 

The PSU team, along with teams from University of Alaska and Oregon Institute of Technology launched from an athletic field at the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. The first round of balloons went up at 7 a.m. as spectators started gathering with their lawn chairs outside the field perimeter. Within minutes, they became tiny specks in the blue cloudless sky, and within 40 minutes, they were more than twice as high as a commercial jet’s cruising altitude.

The scene became more crowded and festive as eclipse time approached. The teams let off their final balloons as the eclipse was happening. Then, as totality neared, the crowd’s attention turned away from the balloons and focused on the moon as it slowly swallowed the sun. The warm morning cooled off noticeably. Security lights on the outsides of buildings came on automatically. A breeze picked up. And when the sun went black, scientists, students, kids and parents let out a collective cheer as if this was the most amazing sight they ever witnessed.

For many, it was.

Then came the work of retrieving the cameras and data collection equipment. Each balloon was designed to pop when it reached a specific altitude, and parachutes carried the high-tech payloads to Earth. The PSU team recovered one of the payloads from a farmer’s field near Corvallis Municipal Airport. They found another 80 feet up in a tree in the Coast Range. And on Tuesday morning, the team was heading back out to the Coast Range to recover two more. 

This week, the teams will feed video from the balloon cameras to the main Eclipse Ballooning Project website.

“This project gave us engineering skills you don’t get in a classroom,” said project leader Rihana Mungin, a mechanical engineering senior. “We produced incredible images that people wouldn’t ordinarily have seen.

It’s rare that a total eclipse spans the entire continent, especially at a time of year when people can witness it. The last total eclipse in Oregon was in February 1979. The next total eclipse over the United States will be April 8, 2024, traveling in a northeasterly path from Texas to Maine.

Homepage: Members of the PSU balloon team celebrate the eclipse.

AboveTeam members (from left) Olea Stevens, Harmony Ewing and Rihana Mungin.

By John Kirkland, jrk3@pdx.edu