By Sarah Elmquist Squires
It wasn’t adorned with blazing colors and fitted with a basket, but the stark-white balloon that soared through the sky at Central Wyoming College (CWC) on Monday holds national – even global – significance.
The weather balloon was on a test run for a project sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation which will help scientists learn more about atmospheric gravity waves during eclipses. The Wyoming team, which includes students and professors from CWC and Casper College, will eventually help gather information using the weather balloons during the October 2023 annular solar eclipse and the April 2024 total solar eclipse, one of 55 teams across the country.
But first, they’ve got to troubleshoot getting the balloon and its 12-pounds of payload 100,000 feet above the earth.
“NASA does 10,” remarked CWC Assistant Professor of Mathematics Kate Patterson of the countdown before the test launch on Monday. Students, faculty and onlookers peered up as the balloon sped 6.32 meters per second above campus, trailing equipment strung on fishing wire that tracked data – including 360-degree video footage of the flight.
The team estimated the payload of equipment would parachute land somewhere near Shoshoni, traveling through different atmospheric layers and up high enough to where the sky is black and the balloon peered down at the earth. Once it reaches a certain altitude, it will pop from the pressure, so it’s important for the team to have a failsafe plan to ensure it doesn’t land in, say, the middle of Boysen Reservoir. In that event, the balloon is fitted with an electric wire – just like the ones in your toaster – and if the team needs to land the equipment safely, they can send an email that triggers a current through the wire, burning through the fishing line and letting the equipment float down on safe territory.
“If it’s going somewhere that’s going to be a problem, then we can do something about it,” explained Patterson.
The equipment measures GPS, the rate of ascent, ground speed, and other data, along with temperature changes as the balloon rises high enough for temps to fall to -40 to -60 degrees, all in real time. When the big flights take place during the upcoming eclipses, it will help scientists determine what affect the moon’s shadow passing over earth has on atmospheric gravity waves.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Physics Bill Finney explained that the gravity waves being studied create a pattern, similar to the ripples that clouds make as they pass over mountains. “It’s like a rock in a stream,” added Patterson.
While the efforts will help NASA glean more information about these waves, it’s also an immersive project that lets students see how their scientific and engineering studies can be practically applied.
“More important than the science, my goal for having our students participate in this project is for our students to engage in hands-on, practical applications of the scientific and engineering principles that they are learning in our classrooms,” Finney explained before the test launch.
On Monday morning, he rotated his gaze from the sky to his cellphone, where the path of the balloon was displayed in real time. Once the weather balloon reached a certain altitude, Finney had to call in to the air traffic control center in Salt Lake City, Utah, and notify them. “It’s just like flying an airplane,” he said, “except I’m not inside … They’re probably watching that balloon like a hawk because they know it’s our very first time.”
And, despite a few glitches connecting to some of the data sets early on, it was a successful test run for the upcoming NASA eclipse flight.