Kentucky College Students to Assist in NASA-Sponsored Eclipse Live-Stream Project

Aug 18, 2017

A team from Bluegrass Community and Technical College will live-stream eclipse footage as part of a national Eclipse Ballooning Project

The NASA-sponsored project, which is led by the Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University, has been years in the making


In a classroom laboratory at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington students Alex Eberle and John Paul Beard are making sure all the equipment they need is in order for Monday.

The students are part of a team that will help live stream the Great American Eclipse,  by sending up a helium-filled balloon about the size of a small van. It will carry a video camera and other equipment into the atmosphere to an altitude up to 100,000 feet.

Alex: "This is the actual balloon we’ll be sending up. It’s a 2000 gram meteorological balloon. It’s whats gonna pull our payload up."

Alex opens the yellow lid off the launch box and lifts out the cream-colored tightly-packaged latex balloon.

The 25-year-old is co-team leader of a group of seven students with one faculty member and one instructional specialist from the college.

They’re collaborating with the University of Kentucky and  Hopkinsville Technical College.

There are more than 50 teams across the country that are part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project,expected to live-stream footage of the August 21 total solar eclipse.

John Paul Beard points to the video camera that will actually stream the event. It’s  housed in what looks like a white styrofoam ball about as big as a basketball. He refers to it as "the payload."

John Paul: "Inside the payload we have a very small constructed Arduino board that’s basically a tiny computer that makes the live streaming possible."

Training and organizing has been a year-long process. And now John Paul says the teams have been working around the clock doing a lot of practice runs.  They also have three different tracking systems to make sure they find the balloon after it lands to retrieve footage recorded by the camera.

John Paul:  "It can land from anywhere in water or very tall trees. We’ve had one of our teammates have to shoot down with a bow and arrow from a three-story tree to get our balloon."

The BCTC Eclipse Team is mentored by Tracy Knowles, professor in the Environmental Science Technology Program. She says getting ready has been a lot of trial and error.

About a year ago the team went to Montana to learn how to build what she calls the ground station.

Prof.Knowles: "And then had to take it apart and move it back to Kentucky and rebuild it…and we’ve been learning how to use the NASA equipment they gave us to fly the balloon during the eclipse, trying to live stream and send it back down to our website and NASA's website."

So is there any reason they might not be able to launch?

Prof. Knowles:  "Storming, any kind of  rain, any kind of thunder or lightning, we can’t launch, anything greater than 50 percent cloud clover we can’t launch because we need to be able to see the balloon and also airplanes need to be able to visualize the balloon  and also strong winds."

The team will travel to Paducah Sunday night to set up. Prof Knowles says the plan for Monday is to start getting ready to let go of the balloon with the equipment into the atmosphere at approximately 12:20 Central Time. 

Knowles is excited to be part of this history -making event.

Student Alex Eberle says it’s a huge deal for him.

Alex: "It’s been one of my childhood dreams to work on some NASA-related project that was bigger than myself and help support science."

21-year-old John Paul Beard is amazed at the opportunity.

John Paul:  "It really means a lot to me to be part of a research team at a young age. A lot of college students coming together to stream such a huge event. And we’re getting sponsored by NASA but we’re not rocket scientists."

The students may have a way to go to achieve that rocket scientist status but this project is a once-in-a-lifetime start.