Balloon Climbs 20 Miles To View Eclipse


September 4, 2017

Among the many scientific experiments that took place at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman during the eclipse on Aug. 21, one professor and his team of student scientists were playing with a balloon.

Doug Knight, professor of physics and earth science at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and his team of students, launched a high-altitude, 15-foot-wide balloon at PARI, where it rose inconspicuously to the cloudy sky as the moon approached the sun.

“We got the balloon up to 99,400 feet, about 20 miles,” Knight said, “and that’s pretty darn high.”

Knight and his team were participating in NASA’s nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, funded by NASA and the North Carolina Space Grant, an association of N.C. state academic institutions supporting space-related research.

“Teams across the nation at 30-to-50 different locations tried to launch balloons from 80 to 200,000 feet during the eclipse,” Knight said.

Carrying lightweight camera equipment and a transmitter hanging from a thin string tied around the neck of the balloon, the goal of the project was to take images and video of the eclipse from near space and stream them to NASA’s website.

“This has not been done before, and our team from Lenoir-Rhyne was lucky enough to do this from PARI,” Knight said.

In addition to getting images and a video of the eclipse, Knight’s balloon was able to get a picture of the moon’s shadow passing over the earth from 90,000 to 100,000 feet.

Knight, who said he’s always been interested in space technology since he was a child, first heard about high-altitude ballooning eight years ago when one of his students at Mitchell Community College, where he taught at the time, said he saw some experiments with ballooning on YouTube.

“We gave it a shot, and a group of students and I made one on our own, and we got hooked, “ Knight said. “Then I started implementing ballooning in my classes, and then a ballooning contest happened and we got a grant from NASA to participate, and now I’m doing ballooning at Lenoir-Rhyne.”

With ballooning, Knight said they use a latex balloon and fill it with “a little more than a 250 cubic foot tank of helium.”

“The amount of helium depends on the rate it goes up,” Knight said. “You don’t want it to go up and burst too early.”

He said, when handling the balloon, students use latex gloves because oil on their hands can eat through the latex over time and make the balloon burst too early.

“When it bursts, it’s probably 27-foot across, and since it stretches that much, you know, any weakness that shows up will cause it to burst early,” Knight said.

When the balloon pops, the payload, a box holding the video footage and images, parachutes to the ground, and they find it using a GPS tracker attached to the payload.

They got the images back immediately, but for two weeks after the experiment, the video payload, which they retrieved this weekend, had been stuck in a tree.

“We figured that would happen,” Knight said. “When you do ballooning in Western North Carolina, you are going to get it stuck in trees a lot, and there have been times when we have, it has landed on someone else’s land and we have had to get permission to get the balloon back, but that’s never been an issue,” he said.

Knight said the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) has rules about using any air space, such as not launching near airports, using a GPS tracker and a requirement to use a light string that will break after a “certain amount of pull.”

Knight said he and his team having been working on this project for eight months, and it successfully culminated at PARI, not letting the clouds get in its way.

“It was almost like an athletic event,” Knight said. “Everyone on the team knew their role and they knew what to do.”

Team members had to learn new concepts, such as electronics and microcomputing, Knight said. “They honestly knew nothing about how to do a lot of this eight months ago,” he said. “When they got done, they knew how to do it, and it worked very well. If students can learn these concepts and make them work, they have demonstrated that they can follow directions, and that’s how they get jobs. That’s why I do this.”


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