Olin students prepared to launch balloons for last year's eclipse/ Credit: Liz Lee

On April 8, as North America witnesses its second total solar eclipse in seven years, a group of students from Olin College will examine it from 90,000 feet using high-altitude balloons, video cameras, flight computers and electronic hardware they assembled and will launch.

The Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project (NEBP), funded by NASA, enlists 53 university teams across the country to collect data for engineering and atmospheric science goals while enhancing STEM learner participation. The atmospheric data reveal gravity waves, weather patterns, and planetary boundary layer changes during the eclipse.

The Olin College team, led by mechanical engineering professor and Needham resident Christopher Lee, launched its first NEBP balloons for last fall’s Annular eclipse on Oct. 14. The students from mechanical, electrical and computer engineering majors will gather again in Junction, Texas, for Monday’s eclipse.

“This is a great experience for students, giving them hands-on experience on a real science mission,” said Lee.

Each team assembled about $10,000 worth of NEBP data-measuring sensors and GPS hardware for tracking their balloon. Once the balloons go up to about 90,000 feet, they live-stream video to the NASA eclipse website and record the atmospheric data.

Junior Miranda Pietraski and sophomore Mark Belanger, who have worked for the Olin College team with Lee since the first launch in October, said they are really excited about the upcoming eclipse. They will fly to Texas on Friday.

“I worked on all of this stuff over the summer as well as the fall semester,” said Pietraski. “It was definitely cool to see that what I made actually worked.”

“I wasn’t here over the summer, but it was amazing to come back during the fall and see all the progress,” said Belanger. “We had started with all the separate parts that NASA sent, and it was very fun to assemble them and see them come together.”

Among the project’s challenges are FAA restrictions, specifically the weight limit. The balloon has to be a maximum of 12 pounds and 5 feet in diameter when fully inflated. However, the equipment weighs about 9 pounds, so if they want to add any other features, they are limited.

“In addition to the video and atmospheric sensors, we added a radiation sensor, a pan-and-tilt camera and disposable film cameras,” said Pietraski. “I’ll be curious to see the sensor data and pictures, which should be higher resolution than the last launch.”

Although the eclipse will be more visible from the launching site in Texas, it will cross North America and pass through the United States, Canada and Mexico. In Boston, the eclipse will reach a maximum of 93%.

More than 90% of totality may seem like a lot, but for the full total eclipse effect, in which day turns to night, viewers will have to travel to northern New England. Parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine will experience a few minutes of 100% totality. 

“As I understand from eclipse people, it’s really all or nothing,” said Lee. “If you are not in the total eclipse zone, you will not be getting the full effect.

Even though the eclipse will not reach totality in Needham, it is still essential to remain safe. Lee emphasized that wearing special eclipse glasses designed for solar viewing is necessary to avoid eye injuries. He recommended using a pinhole projector as another option.

“This project is quite the adventure for us,” said Lee. “Everything has already been shipped out to Texas. We’re all very excited.”

Magdalena Bolinaga is a journalism student at Boston University

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