Students at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, spent an entire school year working on a weather balloon and a payload of cameras, communications equipment and tracking devices to launch during Monday’s eclipse.
In all, 15 students contributed to the project, with several saying they worked on it daily.
“We made sure everything was OK, every day,” said Alicia Evans, who is about to start her senior year at Edgecumbe, a boarding school, which was created in the 1940s to serve Alaska Native kids. “It was our baby.”
A half-dozen of the students involved in the project traveled more than 1,000 miles to Corvallis to join five Oregon schools and colleges in launching balloons from Oregon State University’s campus. The idea was that the balloons would record and broadcast images of Monday’s eclipse from near space. It was part of a NASA project spanning the country with more than 50 teams of student partners covering the eclipse’s path.
Adonna Adams, who is about to start her junior year at Edgecumbe, said the project was so consuming, she wasn’t sure how she would find meaning in her life without it.
And just before the team launched their balloon, all that work nearly fell apart.
The string anchoring the inflated balloon to the ground snapped minutes before launch time and the balloon floated away before the students had attached their payload of cameras and other electronics.
“My stomach went upside down,” said Adams of the moment.
“I felt really defeated,” said Evans. “We went through other problems, but right before launch everything was working and then the worst thing that could have happened, happened in front of hundreds of people.”
But the day was not over for the Edgecumbe students: As soon as their balloon had escaped, they looked up to see other teams rushing toward them to try to help them salvage the mission. Students from the University of Portland offered the Edgecumbe students a spare weather balloon, and the Edgecumbe students were able to inflate it, attach their payload of electronics to the balloon and launch just 10 minutes behind their scheduled time.
Evans said the loss of their first balloon ended up helping the team because the University of Portland balloon they used was designed to lift the payload even higher than their original balloon, to a height of more than 100,000 feet.
“I didn’t think people would so quickly jump in and help us,” she said. “In the end, it worked out because everyone jumped in.”
“I felt so grateful those other people cared about our project too,” Adams said.
Morgan Johnson, with the Alaska Space Grant, said that after the eclipse, the team set out trying to recover the payload, which had a parachute attached to it to slow its fall after the weather balloon popped at high altitude. Johnson said the tracking device’s battery failed, adding a challenge to the team's efforts to find it. But the balloon was following a trajectory similar to one of the other balloons launched from OSU, so the Edgecumbe students planned to search in the area of that team’s balloon for their own.
Johnson said the payload has information in it telling anyone who finds it how it can be returned for a reward.
The students plan to return to Alaska later this week. Both Evans and Adams said they were proud of their involvement in the project.
“It’s the chance of a lifetime,” said Evans.
“It’s something to tell your grandkids about, to tell your kids, to tell your whole family,” said Adams.