Eclipse Ballooning Project Offers a Great Opportunity for Citizens to Connect with Science

SUZANNE M. (SUKI) SMAGLIK ( is an online geology adjunct at Laramie County Community College, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The last time the United States experienced a total solar eclipse in a coast-to-coast path was 1918. The tow-truck and light switch were just two-years old; the torque wrench and grocery bag were only recently invented; and the blender, pop-up toaster and adhesive bandage were still to come. And although weather balloons already existed (they were first launched in 1896), it was difficult to track them without the radio transmissions that didn't come along until the 1930s. Since the Great American Eclipse of 2017 will create such a wide path of totality across land, from Oregon to South Carolina, we will have the opportunity for ninety minutes of continuous data and image collection through experiments and activities from research institutions and citizen science projects, such as the Eclipse Ballooning Project.

It was nearly four years ago, during the 2013 total solar eclipse over Africa, that a small team at the Montana Space Grant Consortium conceived of a great experiment that will take place during the 2017 total eclipse of the Sun. A series of high-altitude balloons (HABs) will be launched along the line of totality during the 2017 eclipse, each equipped with video and still-image cameras that will produce live-feed imagery during the entire event across the continent. The Eclipse Ballooning Project is being coordinated by Dr. Angela Des Jardins, director of the MSGC, with the help of Shane Mayer-Gawlik, the EBP coordinator of the MSGC. The EBP has three objectives: 1) public engagement, 2) workforce development through hands-on learning, and 3) partnerships with federal agencies and corporate sponsors. Such a large-scale, networked balloon effort with live-streamed video has never been attempted before.

For the past three years, over fifty teams from over thirty states have been building, preparing, and practicing for the big launch of over one hundred balloons that will rise to over 100,000 feet during the height of the eclipse. Each balloon will send live streaming video and images through a NASA Education partnership with Stream (an online video platform), which will broadcast the eclipse as it happens:

Funding for this endeavor is provided by the NASA Science Mission Directorate for the primary payloads and includes about $3,700 for each team, for all systems, balloons, and project management. Individual team costs such as travel, student support, additional supplies, and helium are supported by local NASA Space Grant Consortia. Some teams are still looking for funding. Please consider donating to the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project effort via the National Space Grant Foundation. Each donor will receive a receipt for their records. Funds will go to student teams based on need and merit. Use the project's GoFundMe page available through the EBP website.

So far the MSGC team has created a high-altitude balloon-borne downlink system capable of streaming live video, secured agreements with industry partners, and made arrangements to livestream the content through the NASA web page.

Common payload systems consist of seven to eight parts:

  • Ground Station — tracks the balloon in flight, gathers live HD video and still images, and uploads it to the Internet for play through the NASA live website.
  • Video Payload — includes a Raspberry Pi and Pi camera to record and transmit the video feed to the ground station using a 5.8GHz Ubiquiti modem.
  • Still Image Payload — sends images to the ground station using a Raspberry Pi, Pi camera and 900 MHz modem.
  • Tracking Payload — Federal Aviation Administration and ground station near real time tracking of the balloon and payload string will be done using an Iridium satellite modem.
  • Cutdown — This device will mechanically sever the line (80 lb. test) connecting the balloon to the payload, if needed, through a command sent via the ground station.
  • Parachute — This guides the payload safely back to the ground for recovery by the chase team.
  • Balloon — Helium-filled Kaymont 2000g Latex for full launches can handle a total payload of 12 pounds.
  • Optional Secondary Payloads — student-designed experiments including physical parameters (radiation, humidity, temperature, pressure, etc) and other simple devices.
The Wind River Eclipse Education Team (WREET), supported by the Wyoming Space Grant Consortium, is one of the fifty-four teams participating in the EBP. Most teams consist of undergraduate students. WREET is the only K-16 team (with the exception of one Boy Scout Troop), and our team lead instructors are all special education teachers from School District #25 in Riverton. We have formed partnerships with many school districts and informal education venues in our service area of Fremont and Hot Springs Counties, and with pre-service teachers at the University of Wyoming. In each case, K-12 students are being encouraged to design personal experiments to launch along with the instrument payloads. On eclipse day, we will be launching our balloon along the line of totality somewhere between Pavilion and Shoshoni, Wyoming. In the meantime, we have several tethered (150 feet elevation) practices, and a few full-launch practices. Other eclipse education events will be occurring along the line of totality during the summer.

The Eclipse Ballooning Project is only one of many citizen science experiments taking place during the eclipse. There's still time to be involved; there are lists and descriptions of Citizen Science projects at: