UK students launch balloons with cameras during eclipse

Bailey Vandiver

While millions of people watched the total solar eclipse from the ground, several UK students, with the help of balloons, got a view from the sky.

The UK Solar Eclipse Ballooning Team, a group of 24 UK students, captured footage of the eclipse from an altitude of 60,000 to 80,000 feet.

The team, which is funded by NASA Space Grant Consortium, planned to launch two high-altitude weather balloons from a high school in Russellville at 12:20 CST, according to the team’s public relations leader Mollye Malone, a biosystems engineering junior.

The balloons had cameras and other equipment attached, including a way to livestream the footage on two sites.

Though the first balloon’s flight string broke, the second balloon launched “without a hitch,” according to biosystems engineering junior Rachel Walker and computer science and computer engineering junior Ali Bertelsman.

The team was able to fill and launch a third balloon, so two balloons were still in the air, and the livestream ran for the first part of the eclipse.

“We’re really proud of the leadership for making those decisions on the fly and of the team for reacting so quickly,” Walker and Bertelsman said in a statement after the launch.

In addition to the hour-long flight, the stream showed the team’s set up and launch.

Teams from Temple University and Mississippi State University also launched from the Russellville site, while other colleges’ teams launched from other Kentucky locations.

Malone said this project at UK is about two years in the making, but UK has been ballooning for longer, led by UK mechanical engineering professor Suzanne Smith. 

Malone said that this project really started with one balloon launch two years ago, and now, with the help of the NASA grant and “really, really capable people,” they launched during the eclipse.

Several team members expressed how much this opportunity meant to them.

“The fact that, by chance, I got to be involved in this amazing project when I’ve always been interested in space, and this essentially once-in-a-lifetime experience, is just astounding to me,” Walker said.

Computer engineering sophomore Isaac Rowe joined the project just last year as a freshman.

“It was pretty cool to get on a project that has research implications and such good networking across the nation,” Rowe said.

“I’ve been excited for the solar eclipse for years now,” computer science and computer engineering junior Emily Essex said. She said it was “a dream” to work with NASA.

Several of the team members shared their excitement after seeing the NASA Instagram account post about the livestreaming project on Sunday.

“This is like total luck that Kentucky was such a good location,” Malone said.

“We’re really lucky that we happen to be at UK because people are coming from all over the country to Kentucky to launch balloons,” Essex said.

She also said it’s interesting to see so many people get so excited about this event and the science behind it.

Now that the eclipse is over, the team will track and retrieve their equipment, while the countdown for the next solar eclipse begins.