Only a lucky few have watched a solar eclipse from above the Earth. Angela Des Jardins wants to bring that view to everyone.
On August 21, Des Jardins, an astrophysicist at Montana State University in Bozeman, will help broadcast the first livestream of a total solar eclipse from the edge of space. She and more than 50 groups across the United States will launch high-altitude balloons to film the moon’s shadow racing across the Earth and broadcast it over the internet as it happens (eclipse.stream.live).
“On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark,” says Des Jardins. “From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound.”Des Jardins got the idea from a news story about a pilot who flew his plane into the path of an eclipse over the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. Her group engineers high-altitude balloons to study everything from ozone to high-energy particles produced in thunderstorms. She figured it would be easy to fly cameras on the balloons and get beautiful footage. She knew it could be done; another group had filmed an eclipse from a balloon in Australia in 2012.
But in a cynical moment, she wondered if anyone would watch video of an eclipse after the event.
“I was thinking about living in this age of needing to be there, in the moment, or we don’t care,” she says. “To really have an impact, I knew it needed to be live.”
Suddenly the project was much more interesting. Now the balloons needed to carry GPS antennas for tracking and satellite modems to transmit images and video, plus microcomputers to manage it all. The inflatables needed space for other scientific equipment, too. And a balloon with all those components had to weigh less than 12 pounds to meet Federal Aviation Administration rules. NASA got involved, as did colleges and high schools across the country. Some of the students involved in the project are now getting jobs with groups like aerospace company Lockheed Martin and space tourism company World View.
When the total eclipse starts at 10:15 a.m. Pacific time on August 21, Des Jardins will be at a small airport in Rexburg, Idaho, tracking four 2.5-meter-tall balloons as they float up to 30 kilometers above the Tetons.
She’ll also be live chatting with more than 50 teams from Oregon to South Carolina — professional scientists, high school and university students, and amateur astronomy clubs. She hopes the videos will help more people personally experience how the Earth, moon and sun move around each other, linking our hyperconnected world to its cosmic context.