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A-State Team Partners with NASA to Study Monday’s Eclipse


Eclipse from Space
This image, captured at 80,000 feet by the A-State team's near-space balloon, shows the moon's shadow on Earth during the eclipse.

FULTON, Mo. – As millions of Americans looked skyward to marvel at Monday’s solar eclipse, a group of Arkansas State faculty and students were busy partnering with NASA to study the occurrence as the shadow of the moon raced across the midsection of the nation.

Led by professor of science education Dr. Tillman Kennon and Dr. Ross Carroll, associate professor of physics, the A-State team capped more than a year of preparation when they launched a high-altitude balloon in Fulton, Mo., just over an hour before the eclipse.  With Arkansas only experiencing a partial eclipse, it was necessary for the team to travel to central Missouri. 

They were joined by a busload of more than 50 other A-State honor students, who were hosted on the trip by the Arkansas State University Office of Research & Technology Transfer and the Student Research Council.

The balloon was sent aloft with multiple cameras, tracking devices, and other instruments such as spectrometers and Geiger counters.  The team met NASA’s objective with the balloon, capturing images not only of the sun, but of the moon’s shadow on the earth’s surface.  NASA will use the images and data, along with those of around 50 other teams who also participated in the partnership, to study the eclipse.

Both Kennon and Carroll called the mission a complete success and had high praise for the A-State students who worked alongside them, launching, communicating with and tracking the balloon while it was aloft.

“About an hour before go-time, I just stepped back and I watched our students,” said Carroll.  “Frankly, they could have run it without me, and I felt really proud.  All of our students were great, but in particular, we had a couple of students who kind of took the lead - Justin Barnes and Patrick Tribbett.  Justin was extremely helpful with the technical aspects.  At one point, I took a break and looked over and Patrick was just in charge.  He was helping lead the other students, and so long as I saw that he was calm, I knew everything was good.”

“One of our biggest accomplishments was the video system,” said Tribbett, a senior physics major from Kingman, Ariz.  “One of our payloads was recording live video, which it saved to an SD card.  We are starting to piece that together and hopefully get to make a panoramic video.”

The payload parachuted back to earth after reaching an apex of just over 80,000 feet, or 15 miles high.  It was recovered at the edge of a creek over 50 miles northeast of Fulton later Monday afternoon.

More than 100 students, faculty and staff from A-State were on hand, and the entire student body of Fulton High School filled the stands at the football field.  Kennon said that exposing so many young people to the experience of the eclipse was one of the day’s biggest achievements. 

“One of the biggest accomplishments was the number of people there that got to see it,” said Kennon.  “I know we got video and the other boxes have a bunch of data that we will get, and that’s all important, but just opening this up to the younger people is something that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

When asked about the high point of working on the project, all three pointed to the just over two minutes of total eclipse witnessed by those on hand.

 “I can’t stop thinking about the experience of totality,” said Carroll.  “I can’t stop thinking about it and thinking about the next one.”

“The totality was amazing,” echoed Tribbett.  “Going from 95 percent to totality was night and day.”

“Since I had seen one before, I kind of knew what to expect,” said Kennon.  “It was a big deal, and there were our students, and a lot of kids from the high school there.  Just seeing the looks on people’s faces after they had seen it was worth it for me.  When totality first started, there was some cheering, but then it got really quiet. It really takes something to silence a bunch of teenage and college kids.”

Eclipse Release
In an image taken by the balloon as it ascends, senior physics major Patrick Tribbett (lower right corner) leads the A-State team as it releases the balloon prior to the eclipse.