Photo and video downloads

Photo and videos are provided for use by the media in the links below. Please attribute to Montana State University.

 

Media contacts

MSU project lead: Dr. Angela Des Jardins, director, Eclipse Ballooning Project
Media contact: Marshall Swearingen, Montana State University Communications
marshall.swearingen [at] montana.edu – (406) 994-5036

Frequently asked questions

Updated 8/18/17

The Eclipse Ballooning Project was initiated by Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University in 2014. The project has a grassroots structure organized through NASA’s Space Grant program, a national network that includes over 900 affiliates from universities, colleges, industry. The project received a significant grant from NASA in 2015.

The primary goal of the Eclipse Ballooning Project is to provide a unique perspective of the eclipse by livestreaming aerial video footage of the celestial event from the edge of space to NASA’s website for a worldwide audience. The images taken by the cameras will be a resource for scientists seeking to better understand the atmospheric effects of the eclipse. The project also provides a platform for a variety of scientific experiments about the atmosphere, resilient bacteria and more (see below section, “What science is being conducted by the project?”).

Total solar eclipses are rare and awe-inspiring events. Nobody has ever livestreamed aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse before, and we thought it would be an interesting challenge. We are providing people across the world an opportunity to experience the eclipse in a unique way, even if they are not able to see it directly. The project also provides a meaningful, hands-on learning experience for our teams and a platform for them to conduct their own science. 

During the Aug. 21 eclipse, 55 teams will launch balloons equipped with the live video system as well as other cameras and equipment. An additional 12 teams will launch smaller weather balloons equipped with instruments called radiosondes for collecting data about the atmosphere. A list of teams can be found at http://eclipse.montana.edu/programs-of-the-eclipse-ballooning-project/. The Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University has provided leadership for the project through design and construction of the balloon systems, training workshops for the teams and logistical oversight.

The 55 teams will each launch at least one balloon equipped with the live video system. Teams will launch an estimated 20 or more balloons equipped with other cameras and equipment for experiments or to provide other unique views of the eclipse (i.e. 360-degree cameras). In total, more than 75 balloons will be launched. For the radiosonde portion of the project, each of the 12 additional teams will launch several smaller balloons. An estimated 100 of these radiosonde balloons will be launched.

The 55 teams will launch their livestream balloons from locations distributed throughout the roughly 70-mile-wide zone of eclipse totality. A map showing the tentative launch locations can be found here: http://eclipse.montana.edu/teams/. The launch locations may be adjusted in the final days before the eclipse according to prevailing winds, because the teams want the balloons to drift over their ground stations during the eclipse.

The desired altitude for livestreaming the eclipse is roughly 80,000 feet. From that altitude, the cameras will show the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. During test flights the balloons have reached altitudes exceeding 110,000 feet. 

There are three primary science components of the project. In addition, individual teams will use the ballooning system to conduct their own experiments during the eclipse, for instance using infrared cameras to capture images of the sun’s atmosphere.

1) Video and photos taken during the eclipse

The videos and photos collected by the balloons will be a resource for scientists seeking to better understand the atmospheric effects of a total solar eclipse. For instance, the images may show changes in cloud formations. In general, the footage will provide a unique visual perspective for scientists studying various aspects of the eclipse. 

2) Radiosondes

Radiosonde are small weather monitors that the National Weather Service regularly uses to gather information about atmospheric pressure, temperature and humidity. The data gathered by the roughly 100 radiosondes launched by the Eclipse Ballooning Project will be used by researchers to study how the atmosphere behaves during an eclipse. It is known that the moon’s shadow causes a sudden drop in temperature, but much is still not known. 

3) Resilient bacteria

An estimated 34 project teams will carry small samples of bacteria on their balloons as part of a NASA-sponsored project to study how bacteria hitching a ride on spacecraft might behave on Mars. The Earth’s upper atmosphere is similar to the surface atmosphere on Mars, and light levels during a solar eclipse provide further similarity. Also, the large number of balloons launching simultaneously on Aug. 21 provides a good opportunity for study. NASA will distribute, collect and analyze the bacteria samples. 

The primary payload carried by each of the livestream balloons consists of three things: a tracking system, a video system and a photo system. These hang below the balloon along a line of nylon cord that is roughly 20 feet long. The tracking system consists of a lightweight modem that communicates with a network of satellites, allowing the teams, as well as air-traffic controllers and others, to see the location and altitude of all of the balloons in real-time. The video and photo systems consists of cameras hooked to lightweight computers and radio transmitters. Some of the balloons carry equipment such as infrared cameras for experiments that the teams are conducting, in addition to the tracking system.

The cameras carried by each balloon capture video footage that is transmitted to a small radio dish on the ground. The tracking system is used to automatically point the dish toward the balloon in order to receive the signal. Laptops are used to upload the video footage instantaneously to the internet, where it is livestreamed through an arrangement with Stream. The video from all of the teams will be available on http://eclipse.stream.live/. NASA’s website will display select livestreams and link to the Stream site.

The balloons are roughly eight feet tall when they are filled with helium at the launch site. They are taller than they are round, like an egg. After launch, as the balloons rise through the atmosphere, they grow as the atmospheric pressure drops, causing the fixed volume of helium to expand and the balloons to grow significantly.

Each team will launch their balloon roughly 80 minutes prior to eclipse totality at the team’s location. This is done so that the balloons achieve the targeted altitude of 80,000 feet shortly before totality occurs. Shortly after totality, the balloons will pop because of the low atmospheric pressure, or the balloon’s payload will be cut down using a remotely controlled mechanical system, releasing the balloon, which will rise rapidly and pop. 

Each of the balloon payloads with the cameras and other equipment will descend to Earth with a parachute. The teams will use the tracking system in each payload to find and retrieve it. 
The total cost of the equipment used by each team, including the balloon payload and the ground-based dish system, costs only $3,500. The money for that portion of the project comes from the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Other costs such as helium, balloons, and student support are borne by each team’s local space grant consortia. 
In addition to livestreaming video footage, the balloon payloads will store the video and photos and still images. After the eclipse is over and the teams retrieve the payloads, they will have the video and photos to distribute. We will also share all of our images with the Eclipse Mega Movie Project (http://eclipsemega.movie), which will use the images of the last moments of sunlight, called Baily’s Beads, to examine the surface of the sun. 
Several research and education entities will look at the data that is retrieved from the balloon payloads, including but not limited to NASA, National Science Foundation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), faculty members and students at the teams’ institutions, and the general public. 
We hope to gain valuable insight in science, technology, and education arenas. Some of the questions we hope to learn about include: How does our atmosphere react to the sharp shadow of the eclipse speeding across the continent at over 1,500 miles per hour? What does the exact surface of the sun look like? What happens to resilient bacteria when exposed to a Mars-like environment? How do we transmit live video with inexpensive equipment from space-like conditions and over long distances? What happens on the Internet when hundreds of millions of people are watching live streams from the same source at the same time? What can students gain by working together on a massive scientific collaboration? How do we communicate science to the public in a meaningful way?
To our knowledge, this is the first time that anyone has livestreamed aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse using high-altitude balloons. The scale of this project (55 live video teams) is certainly new. We believe that this will be the most intensive examination of the atmospheric effects of a total solar eclipse (radiosonde data plus video and photos). Nobody has ever gathered as many photos of Bailey’s Beads as the Eclipse Mega Movie Project will. The simultaneous launch of so many high-altitude balloons carrying bacteria samples is new. Nobody has ever attempted to fly so many balloons with identical payloads at the same time across a continent (and these are student teams!). Nobody has ever reached the general public in such high numbers with awe-inspiring ‘edge-of-space’ footage as we will do during the eclipse.
The usage rights for the livestream video are NASA’s, which are for public use with attribution to NASA.

Additional information

Eclipse Ballooning Project in the news

Eclipse Ballooning Project overview (2-page PDF)

Eclipse Ballooning Project fact-sheet (1-page PDF)

Infographic: how the live-stream works (1-page PDF)

List of project sponsors