Weber State group using high-altitude balloon to study 2017 solar eclipse

Sunday , August 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM

ANNA BURLESON, Standard-Examiner Staff

They can’t look directly at it, so instead they’re going to use a big balloon to document it.

Weber State University physics professor John Sohl is taking part in one of the numerous studies across the country as the moon blocks the sun’s light, creating a total solar eclipse Monday, Aug. 21.

The eclipse’s path across North America makes for easier study, Sohl said. He and a group of students will be traveling to Idaho, the closest location where the eclipse will be complete. They’ll release a large balloon into the stratosphere to take 360-degree photos and measure changes in ozone.

The study is being conducted in partnership with Brigham Young University - Idaho and NASA, the latter of which is helping fund several studies across the country, according to its website.

“There has never been an opportunity to make numerous measurements by large numbers of groups on the atmosphere during a total solar eclipse at the scale we can do it now,” Sohl said.

There are numerous studies taking place through many agencies across the U.S. Space.com reports a scientist from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder will study the eclipse from a jet using telescopes. The Washington Post interviewed scientists who will be following the shadow of the eclipse in a plane to study the sun’s outermost layer, called the corona.

“There are groups of people who are monitoring animal migration to see if their pattern changes as a result of the eclipse,” Sohl said. “Who knows what to expect.”

Sohl doesn’t know what to expect with his study either. They’ll be measuring any changes in ozone as the Earth falls under shadow, but it’s unclear if there will be any or what they could mean.

“Whatever the reading it gives, the more insight into how the sun interacts with our atmosphere,” Sohl said. “This isn’t going to be Nobel Prize-worthy by any means, but it could be interesting to learn better the normal cycle of the ozone when suddenly there is a loss of radiation for several minutes.”

A total solar eclipse happens when the moon’s orbit puts it directly between Earth and the sun, and according to NASA, the last time most Americans saw one was in 1991. 

The path of the eclipse will start in Oregon at about 10:20 a.m. their time and move diagonally south across the U.S., eventually reaching South Carolina at about 2:30 p.m. their time.

Ogden will only experience the eclipse in 93 percent totality, according to a Weber State news release.

Story continues below the map.

Sohl’s team will release a balloon that is roughly 5 feet in diameter. It will rise between 90,000 and 100,000 feet into the sky in about an hour and a half, reaching a diameter of 40 feet.

“If you know where to look, you can easily see this white spot in the sky,” Sohl said.

After taking measurements and photos, the biodegradable latex balloon will burst and the team will have to retrieve the technology attached, which will fall from the sky.

Clark Planetarium is going to produce the video collected by the equipment attached to the high-altitude balloon.

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.

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