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Pitt students go to edge of the Earth in hopes of viewing solar eclipse

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, July 14, 2017, 10:09 a.m.
University of Pittsburgh students test launch a high-altitude balloon at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh students test launch a high-altitude balloon at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
University of Pittsburgh student, Marshall Hartman, 22, of Whitehall, helps fill a high-altitude balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh student, Marshall Hartman, 22, of Whitehall, helps fill a high-altitude balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
University of Pittsburgh students prepare a balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh students prepare a balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
University of Pittsburgh students prepare a balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh students prepare a balloon for a test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
University of Pittsburgh Professor Dr. Sandhya Rao helps put the final touches on the payload for a balloon test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh Professor Dr. Sandhya Rao helps put the final touches on the payload for a balloon test launch at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
University of Pittsburgh students test launch a high-altitude balloon at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh students test launch a high-altitude balloon at Riverview Park on July 14, 2017.

The rain stopped. The wind died down. Even the sun came out Friday for a team from the University of Pittsburgh to successfully test launch and recover a high altitude balloon.

The balloon launched around 11:20 a.m., about 20 minutes late, but the team didn't seem frazzled.

"Science is messy," said Marshall Hartman, who just graduated from Pitt with a degree in mechanical engineering.

"You got to stay calm," said Sinjon Bartel, who is pursuing the same degree.

Minutes after the launch, the balloon flew over Millvale. By 11:32 a.m., it had drifted over the Pittsburgh Zoo and risen to 15,000 feet. About 10 minutes later, the balloon was over Plum and nearly 27,000 feet in the sky.

The balloon took about 90 minutes to rise and the payload 30 minutes to fall with a parachute.

By 2 p.m., the team had recovered the balloon's payload — an array of cameras, sensors, small computers, GPS trackers and modems — on a farm near Saltsburg in Indiana County. Russell Clark, a professor in Pitt's Department of Physics and Astronomy said there was a little damage but things were mostly intact.

Not bad for a fall from the edge of space.

The balloon flew nearly 100,000 feet carrying 11 cameras, eight of which will capture a combined 360-degree view; six computers; two modems and two cut-away systems to detach the payload from the balloon, one triggered by altitude and one triggered through an internet connection. The balloon will also carry photodiode arrays that will help the Shadow Bandits study shadow bands.

"Shadows of light go across the earth during an eclipse," Hartman said. "And because eclipses are so rare, not a lot is known about them, so we're trying to collect data from actually up in the atmosphere when we launch the balloon during the eclipse."

Students Grace Chu and Janvi Madhani were in charge of the photodiode arrays that will monitor the slight changes in light.

"Most people speculate it is caused by atmospheric turbulence," Chu said. "So by sending up these photodiode arrays that can sense changes in light intensity, we are hoping to see if we can capture these shadow bands in the higher atmosphere where there is less atmosphere and we're also going to have similar arrays on the ground to see if we can catch the shadow bands on the ground as well."

Chu and Madhani worked up to the minute of the launch readying the balloon's payload. Hartman, Bartel and Carlos Vazquez stayed outside with the balloon, filling it with helium and hanging on at times as winds whipped it precariously close to trees.

"It sounds pretty simple, but things get really complicated because a lot of times we have problems with the programming and lot of times we have problems with the actual engineering aspect, with getting everything to fit and wires going from one tier to another."

The team's live stream of the flight didn't work Friday but they are hoping to correct that before eclipse day.

More than 50 teams across the country are participating in NASA's Eclipse Ballooning Project . The balloons will all carry photography equipment to record video and shoot photographs. NASA hopes to live stream the entire eclipse .

Total solar eclipses are rare.

The last one visible in the United States was in 1972. The eclipse path in August runs diagonally across the United State from Oregon to South Carolina. Viewers in Western Pennsylvania should see about an 80 percent eclipse that day.

The Pitt team is one of three from Pennsylvania collaborating with NASA on its eclipse ballooning projects. A team from Temple University will launch its balloon from Cadiz, Ky., near the Tennessee boarder. The balloon will carry a 360-degree camera to record its entire flight.

A team from Gannon University in Erie will launch from Kenlake State Park in Kentucky.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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