Amidst the crashing waves and daunting winds of the Pacific Ocean, the LBCC Space Exploration Club embarked on a journey to get unprecedented footage of the solar eclipse.
On the morning of the eclipse, 50 miles off the coast of Oregon, the team battled to get their video payload into the air via high-altitude balloon. Continually losing their footing as the boat rocked back and forth, the team worked to stabilize their balloon while other team members filled the balloon with helium. The swells continued to punish the team as wave after wave crashed upon the boat, bobbing it vigorously.
Still they held on, after all the countless hours the group put into this project, they all knew that there was no room for error now.
With the balloon finally filled and ready for flight, the team attached the payload to the bottom and let their project go into the unknown. The team’s cheers accompanied the balloon into the air as the project they worked so hard on all year finally took flight.
In partnership with NASA’s Oregon Space Grant Consortium, Oregon State University and Montana State University, LBCC’s Space Exploration Club took part in the once-in-a-lifetime project. The goal was to use a video payload attached to a high-altitude balloon to obtain never before seen footage of the eclipse’s shadow, or umbra, as it passed over the west coast of the United States.
The group had spent a little over a year preparing for this project. They were first introduced to the idea when several of the team’s leaders visited a conference hosted by Montana State University. The conference was promoting NASA’s Eclipse Ballooning Project, a project that ended up featuring more than 50 teams from around the country looking to get near-space footage of the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.
While most teams were seeking to get footage of the moon covering the sun, LBCC’s team had a different objective.
“A lot of people are going to get footage of the sun, what we wanted was to capture the shadow over the coastline because that is going to be unique footage,” said Audrey Vaughn, a mechanical engineering student at Oregon State University and one of the club’s leaders, during a presentation at the Hatfield Marine Science Center on Aug. 20.
In order to get this rare footage, the club decided it would be best to launch their high-altitude balloon at sea in order to get the best possible view of the coastline. The club rode on board OSU’s Pacific Storm research vessel with Ron “Yogi” Briggs as the captain, along with crew members who previously worked aboard fishing vessels on the Bering Sea.
They embarked for their launch destination at around 8 p.m. Aug. 20, and after a long night cooped up inside the Pacific Storm, the team arrived at their launch destination about 50 miles off the coast of Newport at around 6 a.m. Aug. 21.
The plan was to launch the payload project 90,000 feet into Earth’s atmosphere to get the footage of the umbra over the coastline.
The payload was outfitted with two different cameras: a Raspberry Pi camera on the side to capture footage of the horizon, and a GoPro on the bottom to get footage of the moon’s shadow.
The team originally wanted to get live-streamed footage of the eclipse, but continually ran into problems during practice runs with the high altitude affecting the reception of the video. A software update to combat this problem came out a week before the eclipse, but since they were still ironing out the wrinkles in their plan to launch from the ship, they decided that it might be too much to implement the new software.
“Real projects rarely turn out exactly as planned. Requirements change, new goals are identified, and technical molehills can become mountains. In our case we needed to change our project goals to detour around one of those mountainous molehills, and that meant abandoning the live video stream,” said Levi Willmeth, team leader and lead software engineer for the team’s payload.
“We worked very hard on getting that stream working, and it was bittersweet setting that goal aside, but we had to accept that launching from a ship at sea added new complications that severely limited our ability to maintain a usable video stream.”
Without a live video feed the club had to retrieve their footage by tracking down their payload at sea. They used two GPS systems installed into the payload to do this.
One of these systems, Iridium, is a transceiver that transmits data through satellites in orbit. The team can get the data back through email or through Montana State’s database. An Internet connection is needed to obtain this data. Initially it was believed the club would have a connection on board the Pacific Storm but that connection proved unreliable 50 miles out at sea.
This meant that the team was going to have to rely on the other GPS system, the Automatic Packet Reporting System or APRS. APRS transmits the location of the payload to a radio that the team has onboard the ship, which is connected to a computer. They then use the software DNC to decode packets of information being transmitted to the radio. From those packets they can have an approximate location of the payload coordinates and how high the payload is in the atmosphere.
In order to ensure that the payload didn’t get flooded as it landed in the ocean the team waterproofed the payload technology. They used a two-gallon bucket, painted orange to ensure that it was easily visible at sea, and insulated with Dynaflex.
In addition to their own payload, the club, along with other teams involved in the nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, were also given bacteria samples from the NASA Ames Research Center.
These bacteria are a part of an experiment that NASA is running to see how the bacteria react in Earth’s atmosphere at the target height of 90,000 feet. At this altitude, Earth’s atmosphere shares many similarities to the atmosphere of Mars and the data the many teams receive from launching these bacteria into the atmosphere could provide useful information for future NASA missions to Mars.
The club also installed a manual cutdown feature into the payload to ensure that it either stopped rising at it’s target height of 90,000 feet, or it stopped rising at 11 a.m. This was to ensure that the payload would begin descending on schedule so that the club could track it down before having to head back to shore.
At 8 a.m. the crew prepared to launch the high-altitude balloon. After battling the elements, they were able to get the balloon and their payload in the air. The only thing they could do now was wait.
One of the first things they noticed using the APRS was that the balloon was rising significantly slower than what they had initially hoped. This lead project manager Matt Lucas to believe that the balloon might have been punctured and sprung a leak. Lucas also hypothesized that the down winds could be affecting the balloon’s ability to rise into the atmosphere.
The team tracked the balloon reaching about 12,000 feet before it began it’s descent. Though they were a bit frustrated with the premature descent, the team was hopeful that it had cleared the cloud cover and was still going to get a good shot of the coastline during the eclipse.
At around 10 a.m. the team sat on the deck of the Pacific Storm, 50 miles out at sea and watched the eclipse in awe. The club forgot about the project for a moment and just enjoyed the surreal show that the cosmos had given them.
After the unforgettable experience, the team was locked in and ready to track down the payload. As time wore on, however, they lost the coordinates of their payload due to unknown and unforeseen issues with the APRS.
The last packet of information from the APRS before they lost connection said that the payload was a little under 2900 feet in the air at 10:54 a.m. This meant that the GPS system couldn’t have been flooded because the payload hadn’t hit the ocean yet. With no internet connection, there was no way for the club to troubleshoot what could have been going on either.
Due to the GPS errors, the team was forced to improvise. Using some quick math and previous packets of information from the APRS before it went dark, they determined the general location of the payload when they lost connection with the GPS.
The Pacific Storm set it’s course and the club spent an extra six hours out at sea hoping to find the orange bucket that had the footage they had worked so hard to obtain all year.
Looking for additional help to track the payload, club adviser Parker Swanson was unable to contact HAM radio operators on shore from the projected landing spot location 60 miles off the coast of Oregon. After hours of searching, the club was ultimately forced to head back to shore empty-handed. The team put the group’s contact info on the payload as a precaution during planning stages, just in case something like this happened.
“Now we just have to hope someone finds it washed up on shore somewhere and that they contact us,” said Dawson Riethmayer, a mechanical engineering student at LBCC and the club’s Launch Master for the project.
Without the payload or APRS working properly the team could only speculate. One thing that could’ve affected the mission was having two key members of the team away from practice and planning sessions during the summer. Both Levi Willmeth, lead software engineer, and Delphine Le Brun Colon, payload electronics manager, were given enormous opportunities as interns at NASA’s IV&V facility and Marshall Space Flight Center, respectively.
“It’s difficult because Levi [Willmeth] had that NASA internship this summer and the tracking system for the payload was his baby. So not having our lead software guy on board during the summer definitely contributed to some of the problems we had,” said Osvaldo Galvez, one of the team’s leaders and a construction engineering management student at LBCC and OSU.
Despite the circumstances, the team remained in good spirits and felt that the project was a great learning experience.
“That’s just engineering, we have to use this as a motivational moment and go back to the drawing board and try replicating it again,” said Galvez.
Lucas came away pleased with the amount of valuable experience the club received from the project.
“I don’t look at this as a failure, we worked really hard as a team to get here and we had a lot of successful launches under our belt. We got to work as a team, work on soft skills, and we got good hands-on experience,” said Lucas.
Willmeth was proud of the overall amount of effort and sacrifice each team member brought to the project.
“I am very pleased with our team’s dedication and performance throughout. A year is a very long time for most community college students and it can be hard to put enough time into projects like these while also taking classes and often working to make ends meet,” said Willmeth.
“Seeing so many students stick through the entire process from our first club meeting of the year until our last, was just an amazing and inspirational thing for me. I feel that we really bonded well as a team and made some lasting friendships in the process. I hope that many of these students will come back next year to work on another space project together.”
The team is still hopeful that the payload will turn up, but whether they find it or not, the project is a testament to the opportunities that clubs like the Space Exploration Club can get at LBCC.
Club members recently received scholarships from the Oregon Space Grant Consortium. Marshall Andersen and Osvaldo Galvez received Community College scholarships worth $3,000 each. Delphine Le Brun Colon received an Undergraduate Research Fellowship worth $8,000.
Le Brun Colon felt that this project will be something the team should be proud of and will never forget.
“It was very disappointing of course. We’ve been working on this mission for over a year but that’s what engineering is, you give it your all and never stop learning from your failures. And nevertheless, watching the eclipse from the middle of the Pacific Ocean will remain one of the most amazing things I got to experience in my lifetime. We are very fortunate to have been given this opportunity, it’s humbling and we must pay it forward, always.”
At a glance:
Anyone who is interested in getting involved with the LBCC Space Club on future projects is encouraged to contact club adviser Parker Swanson.
Story by Josh Stickrod
Photos by Angela Scott