4-H From the Edge of Space

4-H From the Edge of Space
Ohio club helps NASA capture images of August eclipse
A picture of the August eclipse

“…3, 2, 1, BLASTOFF!”

Eleven Knox County 4-H members shouted these words as they launched their weather balloons and self-constructed equipment on Aug. 21 prior to the total solar eclipse that played out across a swath of the U.S. skies.

Siblings of 4-H members watched the balloon launches on the day of the eclipse

With the Pentagon, Google, NASA, astronomy schools, and many others rooting for their success, the 4-Hers released the weather balloons from Pennyrile State Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky—ground zero for the eclipse. The balloons would rise 100,121.391 feet, or 18.96 miles, to capture the full effects of the total eclipse.

Jeremy Funk, a 4-H advisor in Knox County, had been working with students to launch balloons for the past three years. When he learned about NASA’s Eclipse Ballooning Project, he gathered a group to participate.

The Eclipse Ballooning Project was a collaboration of students streaming live video and camera shots from 55 balloons launched across the continental United States along the eclipse path. The participants received support from every major scientific ballooning entity in the U.S. Not only were the teams the first to show eclipse videos from space, they were also the first to stream live videos of a total solar eclipse from the edge of space.

The 17-member Knox County 4-H team applied to the NASA program and after winning acceptance, traveled to Montana to train on NASA equipment. The team worked for 18 months to prepare for the balloon launch. They launched a total of seven balloons prior to the real thing and went through multiple design variations before deciding on their final platform design. They also met an astrophysicist, appeared on television, become experts in the use of Velcro and duct tape, and visited Battelle and The Ohio State University’s Department of Astronomy in Columbus and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The students held a question and answer session with Todd Thompson, a theoretical astrophysicist at Ohio State. “This was a tremendous learning experience for the kids with the science and technology used. It was the kind of experience many need at that age to get them interested in science. They were very enthusiastic to participate and they did a lot of work ranging from computer programming to working with the hardware,” said Thompson. “These kids put in a sustained, long-term effort for the specific goal of launching the balloons.”

Like many scientific projects, there was more to it than meets the eye. “The take-off and landing are the hardest parts of the balloon launch,” said Funk. “We only had a 10-minute window to launch our balloons, with the eclipse appearing at 1:24 p.m. Our balloons launched right on time and were perfectly positioned for the eclipse.”

Once the balloons rose to the correct altitude of 100,000 feet, the cameras allowed people to see the Earth, moon and sun.

Wearing their blue Knox County Eclipse Space Balloon Team t-shirts, the 11 boys and six girls were confident in their abilities. “I was very excited for the launch,” said 13-year-old Jackson Mentzer, one of the 4-Hers in charge of the second balloon to launch. “I was feeling anxious when the launch took place because we knew the eclipse was starting to happen. It was an amazing experience that is hard to describe. We were all proud of each other and super excited to see the footage that we captured.”

“The sun turned off for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and, during that time, a love for science was ignited in these kids.”Jeremy Funk

They successfully collected still images, two 4K video streams of the entire launch and eclipse, and the moon's shadow as it swept from one horizon, engulfed the balloons and then exited to the east. All of the flight data – temperature, pressure, global positioning system, time, latitude and longitude, heading, speed and altitude – were successfully captured as well.

The significance of the project goes far beyond the launch of balloons, Funk explained. “It is our job to raise the next age of scientists and engineers. With this project we reached the hearts and minds of the student engineers and got kids interested in the STEM program. They did a wonderful job and I am super proud of them. The eclipse was a great layer of icing on the cake.”

The collected data was sent to NASA and Google, who have partnered to create a 90 minute IMAX film called the “Eclipse Mega Movie.”

“The group learned a lot of skills that go above and beyond just the scientific part,” said Funk. "They sat on panels and answered hard science and data questions from the public, learned to work with all sorts of equipment, put together short movies and a documentary, and came out of the experience with new dreams for the future."

Mentzer is one of those students. “I've always been interested in space and the laws of physics,” he said. “I would like to be an astrophysicist one day or perhaps an astronaut.” Some 4-H group members are already looking forward to potentially working on a new NASA proposal that just released that involves a rocket.

“The sun turned off for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and, during that time, a love for science was ignited in these kids,” said Funk. "I think it was a spectacular success."

— by Katerina Sharp