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Eclipse or bust

From more than 100,000 feet in the air, Crater Lake looks like a shallow puddle.

Mount McLoughlin's wintry peak is a just-burst snowball, nearby clouds shreds of cotton batting.

A group of 10 North Medford High School students and four advisers has seen such terrain-shrinking views in photos taken from the edge of space over the past two years. The students didn't actually hit the shutter button, but they launched the weather balloon cameras that did. Those launches have been practice runs for the real thing, part of a massive, nationwide photography project for the upcoming solar eclipse.

"It has been amazing to see the photos, see all that hard work pay off and see that we could actually get really good photos and videos," says North Medford senior Reyna Kirschel. "Oh my goodness, I can't wait until photos and videos of the eclipse."

Kirschel doesn't have long to wait. On Aug. 21, North Medford's "mission control" will bequeath two more hardware-laden balloons to the skies above Dayville, Oregon. The balloons will drift up to about 80,000 feet, joining a network of about 55 other college and high school groups across the U.S. It's for NASA's eclipse ballooning project, intended to photograph, film and broadcast the eagerly awaited solar eclipse from the edge of space with multiple cameras. All those images will be transmitted back to the space agency, and the world can follow along online.

"You can click on varying balloons and see what their real-time video looks like," says North Medford astronomy teacher and planetarium director Robert Black.

Montana Space Grant Consortium helped organize and plan the project, with NASA providing the teams with the necessary equipment and resources. The launches will take place from locations across the U.S. that are in the total eclipse's path, a narrow band of shadow that meanders from northern Oregon to South Carolina before continuing on its journey into the Atlantic Ocean.

"Video and images of a total eclipse from near space are fascinating and rare," the project website reads. "It’s never been done live, and certainly not in a network of coverage across a continent."

A colleague tipped Black off about the project in 2014. He was signed up months later, and he recruited friends to help. Retired engineer Colin White and former mathematics professor Sean Curry came on board to help with electronics, data and tracking software. Astral photographer John Bunyan signed up to help with the multiple GoPro and digital still cameras attached to the balloons. Many of the shots of planets and stars hanging in Black's planetarium are Bunyan originals.

Then came the students. Black said the team took on everyone who applied, even though it doubled the original five he'd planned to have on the team.

"We interviewed 10 kids, and they were all great," Black says. "Why would you tell five qualified interested kids, 'Hey, you know what? We didn't choose you. Go find some other project.' Let's take them all. There's plenty of work. There should be redundancy. There should be two kids working, checking each other's work."

On Thursday, North Medford's team conducted its final test launch at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland. Following the team's collective cry of "3...2...1 liftoff," the balloon was airborne. 

Students and advisers tracked the payload's path from the ground using software that showed the balloon's path as it broke through the smoky haze into the skies above the Rogue Valley.

"We get altitude, how fast it's going, latitude and longitude," student Sam Leach says. "We make sure it's going to land where it's supposed to. If not, we've got to make sure we notify the retrieval team."

The team is mindful that this is the final stretch before the real deal, White says. Precise timing on liftoff will be everything. It has to be to the minute so it can reach the right altitude by the time the sun goes dark. 

"If you take something like the launch of a rocket, the launch of a satellite, say, or the launch of a craft to Mars, you can imagine if you worked on something like that for years and years, and it's coming down to that one moment," White says. "I think we'll be nervous."

Students agreed, but they're excited, too. The group has grown close these past two years, Leach says.

"We overall have a great time," he says. "I think it was a really good experience working with nine other students on this project, because it really needed a lot of people. Every single student has put in their fair share and really come together as a team. No one's lagging behind."

And soon enough, the collective efforts of this group will help photograph the sun for NASA as it goes dark.

"We've had our trials and tribulations for sure, but we've made it through, and we're an amazing team with amazing teachers," Kirschel says. "And we've managed to succeed in all of our launches, and it's been a blast, really. We've come a long ways, and we're very much ready for the eclipse for sure."

— Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Crater Lake is visible in this image taken by a weather balloon launched by North Medford High School students as part of NASA's eclipse ballooning project. [Photo Courtesty of Robert Black]
Robert Black, astronomy teacher at North Medford High School, leads students during the release of their final high-altitude-balloon test at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland on Thursday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]