For the Aug. 21 eclipse, a team of 18 University of Maine electrical and computer engineering students packed up their high-altitude balloons and headed to Clemson, South Carolina to participate in the first-ever NASA “Great American Eclipse” project.
The mission entailed students from 55 teams nationwide launching unpiloted high-altitude balloons to live stream aerial footage of the total solar eclipse from the edge of space to NASA’s website. UMaine’s balloons were among the last to go airborne after 1 p.m.
Clemson University was in the 70-mile-wide path of totality, so the UMaine team traveled there to collaborate and obtain the best view of the eclipse from the balloons. The university’s High Altitude Ballooning group is led by professor Rick Eason and engineering staff member Andy Sheaff.
On their way to 100,000-plus feet, the balloons and their payloads were subjected to temperatures of minus 35 F. Because of that, NASA used one of UMaine’s balloons for a MicroStrat experiment that simulated “life’s ability to survive beyond Earth — and maybe even on Mars.” NASA provided UMaine with two small metal cards with environmentally resilient bacteria dried onto their surfaces. One card was part of a UMaine balloon payload and the other remained on the ground as a control.
Next time there’s a total solar eclipse in the United States — April 8, 2024 — the UMaine High Altitude Ballooning group won’t have far to travel. The path of totality includes northern Maine.