CLEMSON — The best view of the Eclipse Over Clemson just might be from the stratosphere, 110,000 feet above campus, where two weather balloons from the University of Maine will float overhead and livestream the eclipse back to Earth.
The University of Maine contingent, including engineering professor Rick Eason and a dozen students, is part of the NASA-sponsored project “Great American Eclipse.” Students from 55 teams nationwide will share the aerial footage on NASA’s website.
Clemson University is in the center of the roughly 70-mile path of totality, meaning the eclipse will happen directly above campus, with the eclipse creating near-total darkness. UMaine is collaborating with Montana State University on the project.
Montana Space Grant Consortium director Angela Des Jardins said it’s exciting to provide a unique perspective of this rare phenomenon.
“The livestream video will show the curvature of the planet, the blackness of space and the whole of the moon’s shadow crossing the Earth during the eclipse,” she said.
“By livestreaming it on the internet, we are providing people across the world an opportunity to experience the eclipse in a unique way, even if they are not able to see the eclipse directly.”
Per FAA regulations, the payloads carried by the latex balloons must weigh less than 12 pounds. The balloons start out approximately 8 feet in diameter. They will ascend about 1,000 feet per minute and expand to about 30 feet in diameter in minus-35F temperatures before popping.
The cameras and other equipment — including the GPS tracker — then parachute back to Earth.
One of the UMaine balloons will be taking part in a NASA experiment called MicroStrat that simulates “life’s ability to survive beyond Earth — and maybe even on Mars.”
NASA will give UMaine two small metal cards with environmentally resilient bacteria dried onto their surfaces. One card will go up with a UMaine balloon and the other won’t.
The upper portion of Earth’s stratosphere — with its cold, thin atmosphere and exposure to radiation — is similar to Martian conditions, according to NASA. During the eclipse, the moon will buffer the sun’s radiation and heat and block ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in the Martian atmosphere, which will lower the temperature even more.
When the metal card returns to Earth, scientists will study the effects of the exposure to Mars-like conditions on the microbes.
Eason said that since 2011, UMaine’s High Altitude Ballooning program has conducted nearly 75 launches. While several landed in Canada, as well as in trees, lakes and the ocean, he’s happy to report they haven’t lost any yet.
This summer, UMaine sophomore engineering majors Derek Haas and Cameron Sullivan completed multiple practice launches with the UMaine ballooning equipment to prepare for the eclipse.
The students, from Old Town, Maine, also have written computer code, done calculations and trudged into the woods to retrieve the balloon’s payloads — including video and still cameras, computers, radio modems and a GPS tracking device.