The photograph projected on North Medford High School's planetarium ceiling looks as though a satellite or lone floating astronaut took it, the image's bottom half displaying the Earth's curve, the upper portion peering into the void of outer space.
This snapshot, taken from about 80,000 feet, commands quite a view of Eastern Oregon, complete with a swell of wildfire smoke in the photo's southeast corner — a cloud emitting from the recent Canyon Creek Fire Complex near John Day.
The camera was attached to a balloon and launched by a group that includes North Medford astronomy teacher Robert Black and 16-year-old junior Molly Woodard. While impressive, it's actually just a practice run. This group — which Black hopes will soon include several additional students — is building toward a grander subject: a total solar eclipse that is set for Aug. 21, 2017, the first in the continental U.S. since 1979.
On that day, about 50 to 70 groups of students across the U.S. will send up a wave of cameras attached to high altitude balloons, which will ascend to a hoped-for altitude of about 100,000 feet. Those cameras will start firing, and a barrage of video and images will head back to NASA in near real time.
"The images will be on the NASA website and on NASA TV in real time, so within a few minutes," says Angela Des Jardins, director of the NASA eclipse ballooning project and associate research professor of physics at Montana State University.
"Based on past experiences that NASA’s had with transit of Venus a few years ago and recent incidents with Pluto, they estimate the 2017 eclipse is going to reach 1 billion people worldwide, and that the NASA content will have the potential to reach 500 million people.
"The main thrust is instant live reach for all the people who will be watching it and learning about the eclipse that day."
It's the first time such a feat has been attempted, and Black is hoping Molly, along with students he has yet to find, will take the lead on the project.
"We’re going to find students to take our jobs," Black says. "That’s why we want to get practiced, and get some pictures, get some video, so we can find a team to work with Molly."
It's still a ways out, T-minus 22 months until liftoff, but the group is already excited to send its final balloon on its slow ascent to the best vantage point on the planet as the moon temporarily hides the sun from view.
"I think it’s a great opportunity," Molly adds. "I have great guys, great resources. It’s just the ideal situation."
Team Balloon Eclipse
Black came across the program in 2014, tipped off by a colleague. By spring break of this year, he was signed up.
According to the project website, the teams who will launch from Oregon include Oregon Institute of Technology and Oregon State University, among others. North Medford will set up shop just northwest of the town of Mitchell off Highway 26.
Molly jumped at the chance to join Black when she heard about the project. A longtime fan of astronomy, Molly remembers her dad setting up a telescope when she was a child, of catching her first view of Saturn through the lens.
"It just kind of grew from there. Now I own I think three different telescopes at home and an entire collection of books,” she says.
Though Black eventually wants students like Molly to have full control of the launch, he wants to be able to teach it instead of figuring it out as he goes. He's recruited the help of two friends he knows from the Southern Oregon Skywatchers astronomy group: Colin White for the electronics and data portion and John Bunyan for the photography.
White, who had a career analyzing data software for corporations so they could run more efficiently, says he was thrilled to be asked to participate in the project. He'll be able to use his expertise as before, but this time the data he analyzes will relate to measuring altitude, ascent, descent, weather patterns and other factors so he can track the path of the meandering balloon as it rises into the sky, eventually bursts, and falls back down attached to a parachute. It also helps him run simulations on where he expects the payload to land.
"This is a fun way of analyzing data," White says. "The whole project is really exciting for me, and it was really good timing as well because I’d just retired. To me it just seemed a fantastic opportunity."
Bunyan's contributions will be all about the cameras. Many of the images hanging in Black's planetarium are ones Bunyan shot, but there's one shot he hasn't gotten yet.
"I always wanted a picture of the curvature of space at 100,000 feet or so," Bunyan says. "Even between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, there’s a big difference of what it looks like. It’s pretty cool at 80,000, but it’s spectacular at 100,000."
The group has performed two test runs with high-altitude helium balloons so far. The first, in August, captured the Canyon Creek Complex fires from 80,000 feet.
Originally, the group had planned to launch from a star party in the Ochoco Mountains, but White's simulation showed the payload would have dropped right into the middle of the fire complex. The team moved to an area near Fossil — a likely spot for its NASA project launch — about 70 miles away.
"Instead it landed 100 miles or so north (of the fire)," Black says.
It took about two weeks to find the camera after it drifted back down to an area near Long Creek, a process that included hiring a Long Creek resident to climb a tree to retrieve the fallen equipment. When the man found the payload, he also came face to face with a bear, who menaced him and his wife as they tried to get the equipment out of the branches.
But the camera was retrieved without injury. The images taken on high made Molly eager to continue.
"I remember John sending them out," Molly says. "It was just like, 'Oh my gosh.'"
The second launch happened just outside Prospect. That camera has yet to be retrieved, and the team still needs to plot that day's prevailing winds to have a reasonable idea of where it ended up.
Launching is a meticulous process, with a lot of boxes to be checked. This includes main steps such as preparing the payload and cameras, and more meticulous ones such as putting de-humidifiers and hand warmers inside the casing to prevent condensation and keep the floating photographic equipment warm in the negative 50-degree temperatures it will ascend to. Then there's getting the right amount of helium into the balloon so it doesn't burst prematurely.
"I think we're learning, you know, as we go along," White says.
All of this is why teams such as North Medford's already have started practicing.
"They definitely want us to try and get it down so that on the day of the launch, we’re not scrambling around," Molly says.
NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also collaborate on their own launch during the event. They will use 1,000 radiosonde balloons — similar to what the National Weather Service sends up twice a day — to gather "important science data on eclipse stratospheric temperature and ozone fluctuations" during the eclipse, according to the project website.
If pulled off, it will be an unprecedented event. Scientists filmed a solar eclipse at the edge of space in 2012, though it was not live. A similar, recent launch happened at the North Pole, but that video is still being processed. Still, the team has time to perfect things and smooth down the rough edges. There are also practice events they will participate in every few months to keep in touch and coordinate with project officials.
"It’ll be kind of slow until we start getting a little closer to the event," Molly says. "I think we can do it."
Click here to see a map of the total eclipse's path.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.