On Monday, Aug. 21, skies across the
country will darken with the first total solar eclipse viewable over the United
States since 1979. A team of students from McNeese State
University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science are headed to Southern
Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., on that date to take part in a
NASA-sponsored, real-time scientific study of solar eclipses.
team - called "Event Horizon”-
was one of three winners of the Louisiana Aerospace Catalysts Experiences for
Students (LaACES) balloon project competition funded at Louisiana State University by NASA's National
Space Grant College and Fellowship program. McNeese team
members include engineering majors William Dever, Sulphur, and brothers Brian
and Brett Schaefer, Oakdale, and computer science majors, Tyler Morgan, Lake
Charles, and Matthew Foltz, Lake Charles. An original team member, Adam Chase,
Moss Bluff, has graduated.
As part of the competition to win a
coveted spot at Carbondale, nine teams from Louisiana universities gathered
at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Center in Palestine, Texas, with handmade
and self-designed research modules in May. The modules were packaged in a
payload and attached to helium-filled latex sounding balloons, carried up to
100,000 feet to gather atmospheric data and then returned to the ground by
parachute. Teams then analyzed and presented the data they had collected.
most teams focused on gathering pictures, video or other spectral analysis,
team Event Horizon’s module, named Dorothy after similar research modules from
the movie "Twister,” as well as the character from the "The Wizard of Oz,” was
intended to test the speed of sound at 100,000 feet. Experimental measurements
using a sounding balloon have been very rare since 1960, according to Dever.
is an empirical formula to calculate the speed of sound as a function of
altitude but it has only been tested a few times at this altitude, and as for
anything in science, once isn’t good enough,” says Dever. "It has to be proven
multiple times using actual data to determine the accuracy of the formula. Our
results helped prove that our current equation determining the speed of sound
is the correct one, because we were able to test all of the elements of the
equation, plus the actual speed.”
the guidance of Dr. Zhuang Li, associate professor of mechanical engineering,
each team member was responsible for contributing their expertise in different
ways: Dever acted as electrical engineer, Brett Schaefer as project manager,
Brian Schaefer as mechanical engineer and Chase as software engineer.
the end result was collaborative,” says Li. "This project gives our students
hands-on experience with developing payloads as well as presentation and
leadership skills using what they have learned in the classroom.”
had a lot of late nights,” Brian Schaefer says. "But we did come together. We
threw out ideas, had a lot of triumphs and a lot of pulling our hair out and
then times when we would just scream, ‘Yes, we did it!’ So it was a really good
the five-member team is preparing to head to SIU in August. Building off the
data and analysis from their LaACES launch project, the team will now focus on
testing the solar eclipse’s effect on the speed of sound.
says LSU will launch a balloon from SIU’s Saluki Stadium that will include team
Event Horizon’s module together in a payload with the other winning teams from Louisiana
Tech University and Delgado Community College. While NASA will be holding 50 of
these balloon launches across the United States, Saluki Stadium is just a few
miles from the point of the eclipse’s totality, meaning that the eclipse will
last longer there than anywhere else in the country - about 2 minutes, 43
than 45,000 people are expected to converge at Carbondale to observe the total eclipse
at 1:20 p.m. CST. Li
will experience only a partial solar eclipse around this time and he recommends
that people do not look into the sun without special glasses or filter.
team is excited about what data this unique event might reveal.
should see some sort of distortion, which is something that could be researched
further,” says Brett Schaefer. "There
should be shifts in magnetism. If I remember correctly, gravity decreases
during an eclipse. We’ll be expecting a change in our altitude as well as our
temperature. So there are a lot of really cool anomalies we expect to see. There
might be small changes or might be big changes - we won’t know until we launch
in August. And our instrumentation is sensitive enough that even with a small
change, we should be able to see it and break it down.”
Until then, though, team Event Horizon
will focus on tweaking and refining Dorothy - whose design currently includes
red soft drink straws and blue painter’s tape - into a sleeker, lighter and more
refined Dorothy II in preparation of the big event.