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Students Help With The First Live Broadcast Of An Eclipse From Space

Tennessee Watson

 The sun will be getting a lot of attention on Monday, as spectators don their glasses and stare up at the solar eclipse. But for the first time ever you’ll be able to watch from above as the moon paints its shadow across the earth.

The opportunity is possible thanks to the countless hours put in by teams of volunteers -- dotted along the path of totality – who have been working hard to figure out how to share the eclipse live from space.  


One such team is the Wyoming Space Cowboys. They are engineering and robotics students from Casper College. I met up with them at the University of Wyoming’s balloon launch shack out by Laramie’s airport to watch them send an impressively large helium balloon 20 miles above the earth. Come eclipse day that’s how they will send a string of tiny cameras and technology into near space, so that people all over the world can watch as the moon’s shadow takes its 94-minute journey across the U.S.


“Being able to track from the ground and get live video back is probably something only NASA and big companies or government agencies have been able to do before,” said Chris Bradford.


He’s an engineering student at Casper College and he’s excited to be a part of something that’s never been done before. “We’ve hit the convergence of pretty cheap technology and there’s a lot more skill,” he said.


Ten years ago, what teams of students across the country are preparing to pull off would not have been possible.   


But Bradford and his fellow students are still working out some kinks before they release their balloon in Casper on eclipse day. They were at UW’s balloon launch shack for some extra help.  


Katie Foster, an atmospheric scientist from UW, was hired by a NASA-funded effort to support this project in Wyoming. NASA equipped teams from Oregon to South Carolina with all the equipment, showed them the basics and gave them a year to figure out the rest on their own.  


“I think half the point of this project is to have undergraduate students just like these figuring out these systems,” said Foster.


For her, all the troubleshooting and tinkering required is worth it, because the live video from space will be remarkable and because it helps to get young people excited about science.


“Getting engagement from young students is important for investing in our future -- future scientists and future engineers,”Foster said.


The Space Cowboys have launched and recovered their payloads -- that’s what they call the cameras and gear they send up with the balloon -- four times now. But they still have some work to do.


I stood back as the crew sets up a satellite dish that will track the balloon from the ground. The trouble is, it isn’t working.


The Space Cowboys are hunched over it, plugging and unplugging things, trying to keep wires from getting tangled up.


Imagine someone calls your name from the left, but you just keep trying to turn your head to right. That’s what the satellite dish was doing, and like our heads, it can’t rotate 360 degrees.


For hours, they worked on the tripod mount at the base of the dish. They updated software on their computer. They gave up trying to fix it and went with a workaround because the wind was starting to pick up, which makes it hard to launch a giant balloon.


It took about 15 minutes to get the balloon inflated with close to two full takes of helium. They didn’t tie a giant knot like you would tie off a birthday party balloon. The Space Cowboys used zip ties.


Before the launch, robotics student Crystal Stewart took care of one last detail.


“I am putting a hazard sticker one, so if somebody sees it they don’t think it’s a bomb or if they get a hold of it they’ll call us,” Stewart said.


She was using packing tape to affix the label, but Katie Foster cautioned: “All that tape will add weight.”


The balloon won’t make it back but the cameras will. As the balloon rises, it grows from the width of a kiddie pool to the size of a small bus. Eventually it gets so big, it pops. And a parachute softens the landing for the string of foam boxes that make up the payload.


The team checked one last time to make sure everything is secure and then slowly walked the balloon out of the shack. In unison, they eased the string through their hands, and let the balloon drift up.


There were a couple yelps of joy, and Foster congratulated them for doing a good job.


I was left alone staring up at the sky as the balloon soared through the clouds. The team went over to monitor the live stream. After an hour, they lost the signal.


“Oh it’s on its way down. It popped,” Foster, the UW atmospheric scientist, explained. “That’s why we are having trouble.”


The balloon got up close to 20 miles away from earth and exploded, just as planned. With a few more tweaks the Wyoming Space Cowboys hope to join 55 teams dotted across the path of totality who will give us a never seen before view of a solar eclipse. To see how they do, go to eclipse.stream.live


Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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