NASA Space Grant project to livestream eclipse from near-space

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Millions will be watching Monday, Aug. 21, as the moon eclipses the sun, darkening a large swath of the United States.

People from Oregon to South Carolina will witness a total eclipse, a rare phenomenon not seen in the U.S. since 1979. Others in the continental U.S. and beyond will be treated to a partial eclipse.

But if you can’t make it outside Monday, you’ll still have a chance to witness something special — a livesteam featuring videos and photos of the eclipse from high above the Earth.

“For the first time, you’ll see a solar eclipse live from 85,000 feet,” said Erin DiMaggio, a research associate in the Department of Geosciences at Penn State.

The livestream is part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project, funded by the NASA Space Grant College and Fellow Program, which supports educational initiatives in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Teams of college students from around the U.S. will be launching high-altitude balloons along the path of the total eclipse to capture the event. The Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium (PSGC), part of the NASA Space Grant program and housed at Penn State, is funding three teams.

“They are recording in near space,” said DiMaggio, who also serves as project manager for PSGC. “They are seeing the curvature of the Earth. They are that high.”

The teams are given a balloon and are restricted to a 12-pound payload. They must find a way to record video and send it back to Earth, while overcoming obstacles like weight limits and the cold.

“They need to build a payload that can livestream from 75,000 to 100,000 feet,” DiMaggio said. “We are giving students a mission and a goal and they take it from there.”

The three Pennsylvania teams, from the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Gannon University, will launch their balloons from locations in Kentucky and Tennessee. The teams include faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate and undergraduate students working together to build, design and test the balloons.

The project is one of a number of initiatives funded by PSGC. The center supports internships, scholarships, fellowships and research experiences for students at Penn State and 14 other participating universities, along with programs for K-12 educators.

The center is run out of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, but its work crosses disciplines and universities. Christopher House, professor of geosciences at Penn State and an EESI associate, serves as the center’s director.

In one project supported by PSGC, Penn State students working in the Student Space Programs Laboratory built a satellite that was to be launched into orbit this summer by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The OSIRIS-3U satellite, delivered in its launch configuration in June, was designed and built over five years by a team of Penn State students. When in orbit, it will provide measurements of the heated ionosphere to better understand space weather phenomena.

Other Space Grant programs include support for NASA internships, undergraduate hands-on research, mini-grants for early career faculty and researchers, professional development for educators in STEM fields, and informal events such as ones for K-12 students and the community. The goal is to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM fields.

In one example, PSGC provided funding to Zena Cardman, a Penn State doctoral student recently selected as a member of NASA’s 2017 class of astronauts.

Cardman, who studies microbiology at Penn State, was a PSGC Fellow from 2015-16. In June, Cardman was one of 12 people selected for astronaut training out of 18,300 applicants. She will begin training in August at Johnson Space Center and could someday participate in manned missions in space.

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Last Updated August 28, 2017