HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A year of prep work for a team of students and faculty from Marshall University comes down to nearly 2.5 minutes on Monday afternoon during the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States in nearly 40 years.
On Thursday, the team which is representing the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium in a nationwide, NASA-sponsored project to live-stream aerial video footage of the “Great American Eclipse” left Huntington for their assigned site in rural southern Illinois.
At approximately 12:20 p.m. CDT or 1:20 p.m. EDT Monday, the Marshall team — one of 55 teams set up across the U.S. to cover the total solar eclipse — will launch a helium-filled balloon from Cobden, Illinois on the eclipse’s centerline.
Measuring eight feet in height, the balloon will be carrying video and other equipment.
From an altitude of 100,000 feet, “The video will be streamed down to a ground station and then uploaded, live on the internet, for all the world to see,” explained Dr. Jon Saken, associate professor of physics at Marshall University.
“Since it’ll be all along the eclipse path, as it moves across the United States, people will be able to follow it from the various teams.”
In addition to live video, a GPS tracking system will be on the balloon along with a still image camera, a prototype of an automatic astronomical target acquisition system and a guest payload from the NASA IV&V Center in Fairmont.
Teams with similar equipment will stretch from the Pacific Coast in Oregon to South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast.
The live footage can be viewed on NASA’s website HERE.
For Saken’s team, a test run two months ago put the balloon exactly on its predicted path.
“We’re pretty confident that, if we can get it up cleanly and that can be very dependent on weather, we can make this happen,” said Saken, a native of Cobden.
“My parents’ house and my childhood home is right on the (eclipse) centerline, so that gives us a support network and a very comfortable place to stay and work while we’re doing this,” he said.
Leading up to Monday, Saken does have concerns about potential sizes of eclipse crowds in the rural area.
“I grew up there. I know all the back gravel roads. If I have to work my way around traffic on the back roads (to get to the balloon,) I can do that.”
In addition to Saken, the Marshall team members include Jacob Staggs and Derek Staley, computer science majors, and Nick Zarilla, a 2017 Marshall math and physics graduate.
First launched in 2014, the Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University has been leading the NASA-sponsored eclipse project which will be the first time that high-altitude video footage of a total solar eclipse has been broadcast live.
“The path it’s taking, the way it cuts across the United States, puts millions of people within easy driving distance of the eclipse path,” Saken said.
“In anybody’s lifetime, (this is) the best eclipse for viewing in the United States.”