Oregon Tech chases eclipse to the world's edge
As the moon crossed completely in front of the sun Monday, Aug. 21, the group of Oregon Tech students and faculty members standing atop Oregon State University's Crop Sciences Building could no longer contain their excitement. They were witnessing totality, not just with their eyes, but through a live stream of a camera being carried by the balloon they had launched two hours prior, now more than 55,000 feet in the sky.
The 2,000-plus gram balloon was attached to three different payloads of cargo — carrying a camera streaming live video, a second camera taking still photos and a third box that contained high-tech tracking equipment. The tracking equipment allowed Oregon Tech's team to follow the balloon's flight with a tracking dish on the ground, providing a live stream during the balloon's ascent.
A partnership with Montana State University and NASA, the mission was a result of more than a year of preparation. But in spite of countless hours of meticulous engineering and countless setbacks, Oregon Tech's journey toward the edge of space was well worth the trials and tribulations.
"We were standing up there staring directly at the sun, watching the corona burn around it and I just said 'This is why we do it,'" says graduate student and adjunct professor Francis Bartholomew, who was one of the project's leads. "It was absolutely worth all the hard work. We were maintaining streaming connectivity 17 miles up into the sky. It was incredible."
Oregon Tech's eclipse voyage began when Oregon Tech students traveled to Bozeman, Montana in August of 2016 to take part in a workshop centered on a nationwide eclipse project. There, students, faculty and NASA personnel showed Oregon Tech's eclipse team how to put together a payload, tracking technology and ground-tracking system,while also providing them all of the necessary equipment to reassemble the apparatuses back home in Wilsonville.
"A group of students at (Montana State University) designed and ordered all the parts themselves — tripods, dishes, circuit boards — so it was essentially a ground-tracking and payload kit," Bartholomew says. "They also walked us through assembly and the basics of testing, and so essentially this workshop amounted to 'Here's a set of space toys, now go back to where you're from and do some science.'
"We spent the next year putting that set of (space toys) together every single week. We just put stuff together and took stuff apart, over and over."
With a core group of eight, Oregon Tech worked tirelessly on their design, modifying the basic model they'd been given in Montana. With Bartholomew, Peter Tucker, Matthew Schacht and Professor Leif Eccles serving in primary roles, the team was ready for its first test run by November. The team traveled to Oregon Tech's main campus in Klamath Falls to launch from the football field. The results weren't what they had hoped for.
"It was freezing rain and it was our first attempt at filling a balloon and letting it go into the sky. We filled the balloon, attached the payloads and took it to the center of the field. But we suffered a catastrophic failure where the balloon went away and the payload stayed on the ground," Bartholomew says. "Everything that went wrong was amazing because there was some right, too, and we could learn from that."
The failure only served as motivation, as the group continued to work with their equipment and master every component of the ambitious project. They also made a camping trip to Detroit Lake to scout the location where they planned to launch when it was time for the real deal Aug. 21.
The team of students and faculty successfully launched their balloon and payload twice prior to the Aug. 21 eclipse, retrieving their payload both times thanks to a parachute attached to the streaming camera and tracking equipment.
They continued to test and tinker, but were otherwise ready for the big day. But heavy smoke from Canada and Central Oregon meant they would have to change their launch site less than two weeks before the eclipse. They decided on Corvallis, which worked out for the better, as Oregon Tech got the chance to work with other teams from Portland State and Alaska in the days preceding Aug. 21.
"Having three teams launching from one place meant that if we had problems we had three sets of resources and all that mental capacity," Bartholomew says. "We all had different areas of expertise and we were able to help each other out."
Oregon Tech also worked with NASA representatives on a third piece to the eclipse launch in the weeks before the eclipse — the adding of microbiological samples to the top of payloads. NASA's key interest was in the effect of air pressure, temperature and density on the samples, requiring the careful addition of samples just before launch.
"That was very different for us and required some lead-up time for some of that," Tucker says. "And when we recovered the payload they had to be the first people to touch the balloon, payload, everything. But it was also pretty incredible to be part of that research and work with those people."
Finally, the morning of Aug. 21 arrived. While there were some pre-launch jitters, Oregon Tech's balloon ascended toward space with little issue. They maintained streaming connectivity for the balloon's entire ascent — one of the only balloon teams to do so — with the balloon and attached payloads reaching nearly 60,000 feet at the point of totality. The balloon reached its apex at 106,000 feet before bursting at 11:15 p.m. The payload then parachuted back down to earth, landing 25 miles west of Corvallis at 11:58 p.m.
"We made all the mistakes over the course of a year, but we made them before launch day, and we made them again and again and again until we stopped making them," Bartholomew says. "Come launch day we knew how to avoid those mistakes. There were still some mistakes made on launch day, but we had built in enough redundancy that we had a plan B and plan C for everything."
The Oregon Tech team returned to Wilsonville late Aug. 21 after combatting heavy traffic, but went straight to work downloading footage from the payload. There's work yet to do as they continue to compile footage and share experiences with NASA and the Oregon Space Grant. The team also hopes to document their work for future Oregon Tech research, as the eclipse project was the first for the school's GRASP Club — a project-based club that focuses on gravity and space.
The eclipse team will never forget their experiences Aug. 21, and they hope to pass on their own lessons to future Oregon Tech students.
"It was a perfect day. We couldn't have had better weather or a better launch," Bartholomew says.