Connecticut Universities Launch Balloon And Camera To Prepare For Eclipse

Aug 10, 2017

It took about 20 minutes and two helium tanks to fill up the huge latex balloon. A rope dangling from the bottom held onto an assortment of gadgets, including a video camera, parachute, and a razor attached to motor that was programmed to cut the rope at just the right altitude.

The excitement was muted -- and the seriousness high -- as students from the University of Hartford and University of Bridgeport prepared to launch the high-altitude balloon 35,000 into a clear blue sky.

The launch was preparation for the big one coming in a few weeks -- this team will be launching another balloon from Kentucky to capture video of the total solar eclipse that's expected later this month. 

On the way up, the camera will be taking video. Then, at 35,000 feet, a device releases a parachute, and the camera makes its way back to solid ground. The balloon sails off higher and higher, until it explodes into tiny pieces.

"I think the coolest thing is that it's going to provide video of the full eclipse to everyone, everywhere," said Cater Arico, an engineering professor at the University of Hartford who's also the associate director of the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, which got about $50,000 from NASA so the two colleges could participate.

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

"It's all student collaborations across the country," Arico said. "Every team is made up of students, college students, from the entire country."

Nationwide, there are 55 teams that will be sending up cameras the day of the eclipse. 

The Connecticut team did the dry run because on the day of the eclipse, there won't be much room for error. That's because the eclipse will only be full for a few minutes.

But things didn't run so smoothly. First, a helicopter flew by soon before the launch. Then, they had to fix the device that cuts the parachute loose. It turned on while they were still filling up the balloon. Then the balloon never released the payload. They expected it to land just north of Storrs, but it flew all the way to Massachusetts.

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

But this was supposed to be a learning experience for the students who are doing most of the work, said Professor Jani Pallis from the University of Bridgeport.

"They'll be practicing and practicing, and check-listing and check-listing and check-listing," Pallis said.

So even though things didn't go perfectly, they now know exactly where to double-check on the big day.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.