On April 8, 2024 the total solar eclipse crossed North America, passing over Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Along the eclipse path, a team from Virginia Tech was stationed at Thayer, Missouri as part of the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. 

Virginia Tech was among 50 university teams participating in the scientific ballooning research mission during the eclipses in October 2023 and April 2024. Approximately 30 undergraduates from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and related majors, participated on the ballooning team under the direction of senior research associate Kevin Sterne and Ph.D. candidate Virginia Smith.

Virginia Tech was assigned to the engineering track, and teams were strategically spread out at sites along the path of the eclipse to deploy high altitude scientific weather balloons and livestream video to the NASA eclipse website. In addition to the NASA supplied systems and payloads for the project, Virginia Tech flew a second string for a total of 10 undergraduate student payloads/experiments. 

Designing and building the payloads gave undergraduates hands-on experience with circuitry, coding and microcontrollers. The student payloads included additional cameras, passive stabilizers, tracking units, and payloads measuring the altitude profile of cosmic radiation in the atmosphere, wind direction and speed, and solar luminosity.

Tejas Vinod, a junior double majoring in aerospace engineering and physics, traveled with the team for both the October and April eclipses and served as the lead flight director. Timing the launches is critical to successfully complete NASA’s mission and the team executed dry runs and practice launches each month leading up to the eclipses. “On the student payload side, it was very satisfying to apply what you are learning in your lectures and measure it in the field. As a flight director, I would like to work in more leadership roles in the future and this was a good experience in successfully managing an engineering team.” 

Over the weekend prior to Monday’s eclipse, the team did a final practice launch and performed some demonstrations to the media and public at Ray Clinton Park in Poplar Bluff.

Balloons, flying at an altitude of up to 99,000 feet, captured breathtaking imagery of the eclipse at totality for a completely different perspective from those viewing on the ground. 

Weather conditions were less than ideal in Missouri, and high winds made for a challenging launch. According to Vinod, the Virginia Tech team launched both balloons within a window of 17.5 minutes. While the camera designated to livestream video experienced technical failures, the secondary cameras recorded video throughout the entire flight (including landing) and have allowed the team to grab some still images and video clips.

According to Sterne, Virginia Tech’s balloons landed beyond the flat farmland next to the Mississippi River that had been initially targeted. Instead, both landed in wet, swampy areas, making recovery a bit of a challenge.  One string was successfully recovered on the first day. While most of the team started on their voyage back to Blacksburg, Sterne and Smith stayed behind to recover the second string from marshland in the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. The team is grateful for the assistance and resources of Fish and Wildlife officers in Puxico, Missouri, who supplied chest waders and a canoe to travel out to the flight string and retrieve it.  

Livestream video of the balloon launches in Missouri can be viewed on the High Altitude Ballooning (HAB@VT) team’s YouTube page at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzFOnlzEy04&ab_channel=HAB%40VTVideos