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Bursting balloons can't keep Pitt students down during eclipse data survey

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, 8:45 p.m.
The Pitt Shadow Bandits balloon sails high into the sky after launch on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, from a site just north of Springfield, Tenn. The team launched their balloon during the total solar eclipse as part of a project with NASA.
The Pitt Shadow Bandits balloon sails high into the sky after launch on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, from a site just north of Springfield, Tenn. The team launched their balloon during the total solar eclipse as part of a project with NASA.
The Pitt Shadow Bandits check out the solar eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, from a site just north of Springfield, Tenn. The team launched a high-altitude balloon during the total solar eclipse as part of a project with NASA.
The Pitt Shadow Bandits check out the solar eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, from a site just north of Springfield, Tenn. The team launched a high-altitude balloon during the total solar eclipse as part of a project with NASA.

The first balloon popped before it even launched.

The second balloon popped, too, this time at more than 100,000 feet.

And the payload dropped to Earth at nearly 50 mph.

But the University of Pittsburgh team that traveled to Tennessee to launch a high-altitude balloon as part of a NASA project declared Monday a success.

"We will soon know what we discovered," said Janvi Madhani, a junior at Pitt studying physics and astronomy and a member of the Pitt Shadow Bandits.

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

The team traveled to a spot in the path of totality just north of Springfield, Tenn.

Problems started as members filled their first balloon. That balloon had a funny shape, said Grace Chu, a sophomore majoring in physics and astronomy. The team filled it up, tied it off and waited for launch. But just a few minutes later, it popped, Chu said.

No worries, however. The team had a backup balloon and quickly filled it in time for launch.

At 1:20 p.m. Pittsburgh time, the team launched their balloon. It sailed high into the sky, capturing photographs and videos and using light sensors to hopefully detect shadow bands, shadows of light that shoot across the ground in bands during an eclipse.

When the balloon rose to 90,000 feet, the team was ready to cut it loose and have its payload of cameras and sensors parachute back to Earth. They sent a command to cut the payload loose, got a confirmation back, but the balloon kept climbing.

At 103,000 feet, the balloon burst, and the payload started to drop, Chu said. The parachute, however, never deployed. The payload reached speeds of 70 feet per second, about 48 mph, as it fell.

"We were all very concerned that when we went to go get it, all our equipment would be smashed," Chu said.

The team found their payload about 4 miles away. It was in the middle of a forest. The trees had helped slow its descent, and a vine caught it near the ground, holding the payload just above the forest floor.

"All of the equipment was intact," Chu said. "Most of it was still on."

The team is going over photographs and videos from the flight and analyzing data from photodiode arrays that should have detected shadow bands.

While the balloon was in flight, the team had a chance to check out the eclipse. Aimee Everett, a sophomore studying environmental science and nonfiction writing, said what she saw surprised her.

"It went dark in the middle of the day," Everett said.

Chu said the team could clearly see the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere. And it looked just like it does in photos.

"You'd think those were photoshopped, but they're not," Chu said of the corona meeting expectations.

All three are hooked and can't wait for the 2024 solar eclipse. Madhani said the two minutes of totality she saw weren't enough for her. Everett is already making plans.

The team has posted photos from the eclipse on its Facebook page .

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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