Students from universities across the United States will embark on a remarkable endeavor this coming Friday morning. Authorities have been duly notified and have given the green light for the launch. As you gaze up at the sky during this weekend’s annular eclipse, you may witness a spectacle that is truly out of the ordinary: gigantic white balloons gracefully hovering above your community. These balloons are part of the Nationwide Eclipse Balloon Program, a collaboration among various universities in the U.S. that aims to conduct groundbreaking research during the upcoming eclipse. Commencing at 11 a.m. on Friday, an array of these balloons will float above the western communities of San Antonio, majestically soaring at an elevation of 80,000 feet. With a diameter of roughly 100 feet, equivalent to the size of a standard garage door, these balloons are the brainchild of a team comprising students and faculty members from prestigious institutions such as the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Fisk University, and the University of Houston.
Dr. Edgar Bering, a distinguished professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of Houston, expressed his enthusiasm about the project, stating, “I teach a course in how to build spacecraft that basically runs on a two-year rotation. Because this is a class, we started right away last December and took about half of them to Alaska with us with the previous group so they could train with the University of Alaska team.” Jason Ruszkowski, a student director for the National Eclipse Balloon Program who is majoring in physics and political science at the University of Houston, shared further insights about the project. He explained, “[We’re] launching every hour, on the hour, for 30 hours straight. It’s gonna be a lot of balloons popping up. The overall project’s called USIP, or Undergraduate Student Instrument Project… we have a total of 34 students involved.”
The primary objective behind these balloon flights is to conduct extensive atmospheric research throughout the duration of the eclipse. Ruszkowski emphasized that a key focus of their research will be to observe any anomalies in the cloud formations. He stated, “We’re expecting what’s known as ‘gravity waves.’ Essentially, we will be examining how the clouds deform into spiral patterns, how these deformations propagate from Portland Oregon down to Corpus Christi.” As part of the project, the team also plans to livestream the entire event. A team of 29 individuals from the University of Houston will launch a single balloon from an area near Bracketville, which will travel over Concan and eventually descend near Center Point, Texas. Additionally, Fisk University is set to launch another balloon from Vanderpool, with a projected landing zone between Comfort and Bandera. The University of Alaska at Fairbanks, on the other hand, will release an impressive fleet of 30 balloons from Utopia. Ruszkowski shed light on the mechanics of the balloon flights, explaining, “They fly up about 1,000 feet per minute. Once it reaches 80,000 feet, we’re going to open a contraction on the balloon itself to vent out excess helium, allowing it to float for a while before finally cutting the balloon down.” He also emphasized that these balloons are environmentally safe.
Despite being 77 years old, Dr. Bering is still actively involved in such projects, acknowledging that he could have retired long ago. However, he finds immense joy in undertaking endeavors like these. He expressed, “I told my students Friday in class that I really wanted them to have fun this trip. This is a part of education that gets lost. Where is the joy and wonder that we all felt when we first went to school at the age of five? It’s here! This is where it is!” The performance of each student involved in the project will be assessed and graded. Bering proudly asserted, “This is an extension of curriculum. I think I’m one of the few universities that’s actually doing that.”
Residents residing to the west of San Antonio, encompassing communities such as Concan, Comfort, Bandera, Rocksprings, Pearsall, and Junction, may have the opportunity to witness segments of the balloon flights. As one team launches a balloon and subsequently meets it at the landing site, another group of students will diligently track the object’s movement while driving. As our interview concluded, Dr. Bering offered some advice to spectators, stating, “If you’re already under the path of the eclipse, stay where you are. We are going to have massive traffic problems and if you don’t have to be on the road, don’t.” For those interested, the livestream of the event will be available on NASA.gov and YouTube. Should you have any inquiries regarding the research conducted by the University of Houston, Jason Ruszkowski kindly provided his email address: [email protected]. For comprehensive coverage of this weekend’s eclipse, make sure to visit KENS5.com/eclipse.