Waking up the day of the total solar eclipse was different for Reyna Kirschel. Aug. 21, 2017, had always been something to look forward to, a date that was years or months or weeks or days away.
It had never been "today."
But she wasn't just ready to view the eclipse from the ground. She was eager to get going on the senior project she and 10 other students had been working on the past two years: a NASA-coordinated effort to photograph and record the event in the sky in real time, then share it with the world.
"It was so bizarre to wake up and be like, 'Oh, this is pretty much the end of the project really,'" Kirschel, 17, recalls while sitting in the school's planetarium. "It was a surreal moment to think about. 'Oh, it's going to happen.'"
Kirschel and her teammates were one of about 55 high school and college teams across the U.S. that would successfully launch high altitude balloons from beneath the path of totality, a thin, shadowy band that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina and offered a full view of the moon cutting in front of the sun. Led by astronomy teacher and planetarium director Robert Black, the North Medford team was one of 26 to successfully live stream it.
It has been two weeks since Kirschel, her teammates and coaches entrusted their balloons — Tornado and Eagle — to the darkening sky beneath the Eastern Oregon town of Dayville. The balloons burst prematurely at about 86,000 and 101,000 feet, respectively, just before totality, and plummeted back to Earth, taking plenty of breathtaking images and data back with them.
Kirschel and her team had traveled to Dayville a few days before, setting up camp at an RV park. The team spent two years preparing, training and practicing for the event.
On the morning of Aug. 21, they packed their equipment and went to Dayville High School, where they would launch.
They spent from 7 to 8:30 a.m. setting up, unpacking and preparing their ground station and doing checks on the balloon payloads. Then they started filling up the balloons. Tornado took on an odd shape as they filled it, more of a stretched ellipse than the spheres they were used to.
"This one was more oblong, and it was very bizarre to see that," Kirschel says. "We've never launched a balloon quite like that."
They had extra balloons, but because of time constraints — launch times for the two balloons were 9:05 and 9:15 a.m. — and because they didn't consider the odd shape too serious, they didn't fill a new one.
"We didn't want to waste that window of opportunity because everything was so planned out and calculated out," Kirschel says.
Cameras weren't all that was attached to Tornado. The NASA Ames Research Center sent the group seven different types of bacteria cultures to see how they'd fare so high up. A control group stayed on the ground.
"The upper atmosphere is very similar to Mars' atmosphere," Kirschel says. "Therefore, they wanted to see if these bacteria would survive in that type of atmosphere."
The team also put sensors on Tornado to monitor ultraviolet A and B levels during the eclipse, along with gamma radiation levels.
At 9:05 a.m., Tornado floated into the sky. Eagle followed 10 minutes later. Launch conditions were ideal, with low winds and good visibility, but there was still anxiety.
"I was very, very nervous," Kirschel says. "Once it's up, there's no stopping it from doing whatever it wants. It can burst prematurely. It can ascend way too quickly. It can burst at 10,000 feet. There's no telling what would happen, and it's that horrible feeling of 'I can't do anything else now.' That was a little nerve-racking to feel that way."
It was also a relief, though. Two years of work had led up to this, a launch that was now underway.
When real-time video from the Eagle balloon started to appear on the ground station monitor, the team crowded around to watch. But as the balloon continued to ascend, the transmission was sporadic. The camera also seemed to be spinning like a merry-go-round. That said, the images that showed up when the signal came through were stunning. Kirschel saw the curve of the planet, mountains and some wildfire smoke. And, occasionally, the sun, slowly going dark.
Minutes before totality, Tornado burst, and the payload started to fall. Eagle burst a bit later about 30 seconds before totality. The streaming video signal cut out, but then returned at about 80,000 feet as the balloon plummeted.
During test launches leading up to the big day, the balloons they had launched had ascended at a slower speed than needed. The team tried to compensate for that by putting in a bit more helium, and adjusting calculations accordingly, but it still turned out to be too much.
"How ironic that on the day, using the same calculations, using the same procedures, we are a meter-per-second over," Black says.
The ellipse shape of Tornado also likely contributed to that balloon's speedier-than-usual ascent.
It was distressing at first, but once totality hit, once sunfire ringed the moon's shadow and cast Dayville in nighttime, it didn't matter. The image made Black think of his wedding day, of the ring he gave his wife. The piece is set with a rutilated cat's eye tourmaline, a stone that puts off colorful flares of light.
"During totality, I did nothing," Black says.
"Nobody did anything," Kirschel amends.
Late in the morning, Black heard a sudden chorus of nighthawks flying into the sky, tricked by the onset of sudden darkness.
The team waited for a bit until the initial exodus of post-eclipse traffic thinned out, then set out to retrieve the fallen balloons. Both had fallen back to Earth less than 20 miles away as the crow flies.
Tornado landed in a rock field. No footage was damaged, and no SD storage cards were corrupted. The NASA Ames bacteria samples came back OK, too. They have since been sent to Cornell University for analysis.
"We haven't heard back from that yet whether or not anything did happen to them, but it was interesting to see the controlled group versus the group that was on the payload," Kirschel says. "Because they did differ slightly."
Eagle landed in a pine tree coming out of a steep incline, which resulted in a creative removal effort of using another dead tree to hook the payload ropes and lift it down.
The team headed back to the campsite and stayed one more night while astral photographer and team member John Bunyan started going through the footage and photos. For him, the highlights were a photo of the sun's corona captured during the eclipse and several photos where one of Tornado's cameras captured a distant white pinpoint: the other balloon.
"Seeing the balloon from the other balloon’s perspective and actually seeing it in motion and all the way up into the stratosphere was a real plus," Bunyan says.
Aug. 21, 2017, was certainly "the" launch, but the story isn't over yet.
In late October Kirschel and teammates Sarah Tang and Apoorva Singh will head to Minneapolis for the Stratospheric Ballooning Association's Academic High-Altitude Conference, where they will share findings and images from their project.The team also has one helium tank left, so a final launch — an epilogue launch, if you will — could be coming.
"We've never shot Mount Shasta," Black says. "So there are actually some ripples in The Force about whether or not we should launch one more."
But the main launch itself is done. The eclipse, too. And it will be awhile until one returns to our neck of the woods; another total solar eclipse won't pass over Oregon until 2169.
"It's lovely to have it done, but it's also kind of a bittersweet moment," Kirschel says. "It's like, 'Oh, we won't have weekly Thursday meetings anymore,' and 'Oh, we're not going to have practice launches on Saturdays, what am I going to do Thursday afternoons now?' But it's good. It's good that this project has come to an end. All good things have to come to an end eventually."
— Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.