Mercer University team helps people experience the solar eclipse

Author: AP
John Trierweiler / WINK

MACON, Ga. (AP) You don’t have to be in the “path of totality” or have special glasses to see a total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

A team from Mercer University will help people across the United States witness the rare, cosmic event remotely.

Anthony Choi, Mercer electrical and computer engineering professor, and several students are traveling to Sunset, S.C., to live-stream the total solar eclipse. They are one of about 35 teams who will broadcast footage on NASA TV from sites down the eclipse’s direct path, using high-altitude balloons equipped with cameras.

Areas outside the path will see a partial eclipse, and Middle Georgia’s eclipse coverage will be around 94 percent. A total eclipse of the sun occurs about every two years around the globe, but they usually happen in areas that aren’t accessible to people, like over the ocean, Choi said.

The total solar eclipse Aug. 21 will be over in less than five minutes, but the entire process of the moon covering the sun will last two to three hours, depending on location. The peak time in Middle Georgia will be 2:39 p.m. To avoid eye damage, special solar glasses must be worn if watching in person.

“To have such a long, prolonged path of the total eclipse in the continental United States … is kind of like a historic event,” Choi said. “This one actually starts from the Pacific Ocean and ends in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s what makes it so special.”

Montana State University is the key school for NASA’s live-stream project, Choi said. About 25 Mercer students, many engineering majors and robotics club members, worked on the local project over the past year. Kyle Struck, Andrew Robinson and Jacob Sokolove did the bulk of the work this summer. Georgia Tech student Donghee Kwak also helped through his summer internship at Mercer.

The team will go to Sunset to start setting up, Choi said. Small groups will be responsible for the balloon launch and retrieval and ground monitoring during the eclipse, said Struck, a software engineering graduate student who is the summer lead for Mercer’s project.

The high-altitude balloon will travel to heights of 110,000-120,000 feet. It will carry a “payload” system — a box with equipment — that includes a tracking device, power board and camera, Struck said.

Team members built a ground-based tracking antenna that will amplify a wifi signal to transmit live HD video, Choi said. They will run various mission scenarios to look at weather and wind patterns and calculate the balloon’s trajectory to get it in the right location at the right time.

Other than a small-scale project in Australia, the filming of eclipses has not really been done.

“What they want to do this time is to try to cover the whole path of the eclipse, all the way from Oregon to South Carolina, as the eclipse traverses the continental United States,” Choi said. “(This project) allows NASA to truly bring a phenomenal event to anyone who wants to view it live, so they can see the effect of such an event on their life.”

Like many others, it will be the first time that Choi, Struck and Kwak have viewed a total solar eclipse. But, the end of the celestial event will be just the beginning for Mercer, Choi said.

“We’ve used this event to generate interest, generate excitement and generate the technical skills and the know-how to create the infrastructure necessary to actually go to the very next step, which is to become a center where people can come to gain access to space,” he said.

Right now, it costs about $10,000 a pound to send an experiment into space through NASA. The agency wants to make that cheaper, so it will support Mercer in creating a Center for High Altitude Payload Delivery Systems, Choi said.

Schools will be able to design and submit experiments to the center, which will send them to high-altitudes and space-like conditions for as little as $50. The project will be developed over the next year, and school partners like Putnam County will test out the process.

“What we’re trying to do is bring space to the hands of K-12, to other universities, in such a way that they feel that space is not so far away. Now, for all these kids … space is something I can touch. Space is something I can work with,” Choi said.

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