The Michigan Exploratory Laboratory (MXL) students have been hard at work preparing for the recent eclipse that took place on October 14. Led by Professor James Cutler, this dedicated team journeyed south to Junction, Texas, as part of the National Eclipse Ballooning Project (NEBP), sponsored by NASA.
The NEBP is a multi-year initiative aimed at broadening the participation of STEM learners in eclipse research. It is sponsored by NASA and organized by Montana State University. MXL students — alongside 70 other student teams from across the country — joined the NEBP to study the eclipse phenomenon. By involving a diverse range of higher education institutions, this adventure in data acquisition and analysis through scientific ballooning has sparked an interest in eclipse research for students. This was particularly evident during the Oct. 14, 2023 annular solar eclipse and promises to draw equal attention for the upcoming April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse.
In collaboration with MXL, the University of Michigan Space Institute has played a pivotal role in shaping the MXL’s NEBP team. The Space Institute’s cubesat class helped prepare and train some of the team’s older students, along with providing some of the balloon launch and tracking infrastructure that the team uses for their flights.
ABOUT THE PROJECT & MXL:
MXL has its roots in real-world experiential learning, emphasizing a “fly what we build, and build what we research” approach. The research lab located within Michigan Aerospace’s Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building (FXB) focuses on providing students with hands-on experience in real-world projects while working in a team environment. With 14 students committed to the project, MXL represents dedication and passion for scientific exploration.
The students began preparing for the October 2023 solar eclipse project in the spring, traveling to Maine for initial tests and practice flights. Throughout the summer, they worked tirelessly to build their payloads and test their equipment. Not only did they spend endless hours in the lab, putting their minds together to engineer everything they needed, in collaboration with Montana State University, but they also worked together to build a supportive and enthusiastic environment with the endless support of Professor Cutler.
Despite encountering setbacks and weaknesses in their system during their September test flight, the team persevered, reassessed their strategies, and resolved multiple issues in order to make the trip to Texas. “It was a balance between optimistic and realistic — can we go — we are going,” commented Mari Battaglia, one of the project team leads. “We needed to make changes to make the trip happen.” After long hours and tireless continued preparation, the team decided to travel to Texas and participate in the annular eclipse event.
In addition to their helium-filled weather balloon, the students equipped their project with a distinctive payload system, allowing them to gather as much data from the solar eclipse as possible. While NASA is sponsoring the project, Montana State University coordinates the primary operations and ships much of the payload equipment to each participating team. The students then added their own unique touches to the payload and assembled the system.
Ayush Pujara, another one of the team leads on the project, went into detail about their payloads, which are attached to the balloon using a flight paracord line in a specific sequence a few feet apart. This includes two Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) trackers and two satellite-network-based communication systems for redundant tracking capability. The APRS trackers transmit GPS-based position over amateur radio messages directly to handheld radios carried by the team and to the internet via networked radio ground stations. The satellite systems use Globalstar and Iridium satellite networks to relay balloon position to internet-accessible websites.
Additionally, the payload incorporates atmospheric pressure and temperature sensors, as well as a camera hub. This hub consists of five cameras, including two DJI, which are standard 90-degree “GoPro style” cameras, two 190-degree Arducams, which are small cell phone-style cameras integrated to a Raspberry Pi computer, and a Garmin 360-degree camera.
The entire balloon system, including the payloads, weighs under nine pounds and can reach cruising altitude, which is 85,000-90,000 feet, in approximately 2 hours, offering a total in-flight time of 2.5 to 3 hours. During their last successful flight, the balloon burst at an impressive 98,000 feet.
Although this project has been in development for years, this particular balloon and payload are different from the past balloons developed within the walls of FXB. The team highlighted a venting mechanism that allows the controlled release of helium out of the balloon to slow down the ascent and hover at cruising altitude, which begins around 75,000 feet. Because of this, the flight termination capability relies almost entirely on the vent. While this is a huge capability increase for the team, it also offers a variety of challenges they had to solve during their building and preparation phase.
The biggest of those challenges was how to tie the balloon and the vent mechanism together for flight. The team leads on the project elaborated on the Flight Termination Unit (FTU) attached to their venting mechanism, which has a string that ties from the FTU around the balloon neck and down through the other side of the vent, commenting that “this has proved to be an interesting challenge.”
“There are two main drivers for how the balloon is tied onto the vent. The first is that the string needs to provide a full seal around the neck of the balloon on the vent to prevent helium leaking from the balloon. The other driver is that the string should still be able to completely unravel and release the balloon when the FTU cuts the string,” explained Caitlin Martinez, another one of the team leads. “While these two aspects don’t directly oppose each other, it was a very intentional process to determine how to tie the balloon so that both of these needs are met. Extensive ground testing was conducted to determine how well different tying configurations were able to meet these needs.”
An additional challenge the team faced was how to properly hold the payload and balloon before letting it go to take flight. Members of the team further explained that the way they hold the equipment is critical and any mild mistake can cause mission failure. Professor Cutler expanded on this, stating that in one of the team’s test flights, a student’s glove was caught in the balloon system which snagged and created a structural failure.
This system also includes a ground station for the real-time collection of their streaming video and data as well as atmospheric sensor readings, automatically linked to the balloon through the payload’s tracking sensors. This data is then processed internally on their laptops and devices. Thanks to the help of Michigan Aerospace alum and SpaceX VP, Kiko Dontchev, the team was also equipped with Starlink-enabled Internet access. This allowed them to stream real time data from the ground station team that was tracking the balloon system. “This was perfect for the remote areas of southwestern Texas,” stated Professor Cutler.
THE ECLIPSE PHENOMENA:
The decision to focus on the solar eclipse is rooted in its unique ability to unveil profound insights into the atmosphere. This research surrounding the quick change from day to evening helps unlock more information surrounding the captivating eclipse event.
Team members explained that one of their primary objectives is taking measurements to look for atmospheric gravity waves. These rapidly moving air columns can generate rippling waves throughout the atmosphere, much like when a rock is dropped into a puddle of water. The eclipse can potentially create rapidly cooling and condensing columns of air. In coordination with other NEBP teams around the country, the MXL team aims to gather in-depth data about these phenomena during the eclipse.
The team will also study how the eclipse affects atmospheric pressure and temperature, offering an opportunity to collect comprehensive data on these variables. Their focus is to answer questions such as: what is happening in the atmosphere during these solar events? Are the atmospheric conditions being significantly changed by these solar events? Do our atmospheric models accurately predict any changes?
“The eclipse is so astronomically intense, we hardly ever see the moon crossing in front of the sun,” Mari stated. “Our mission is focused on making measurements to look for gravity waves and we’re working hard to build a functional, robust balloon mission. During the solar eclipse, we have a very quick change from day to evening and you get this weird change in temperature and a possible change in pressure. Our goal is to measure those changes!”
Despite encountering challenges during their preparations, their passion, mentorship, and teamwork have been crucial to their success. This project has not only provided them with valuable skills but has also created a sense of family among the team members.
“It’s exciting to dive into the learning process this project has offered in leadership and technical knowledge headfirst and enjoy and love everything I am doing. The mentorship I have received from the team members and Professor Cutler is something I feel I couldn’t get anywhere else,” Mari explained.
As leaders within the team, Mari, Caitlin, and Ayush find the best part of working on this project to be witnessing the team’s enthusiasm and deep involvement. They can see the team come together and not only form good friendships but also good work relationships. They expanded further, stating not every student gets to experience projects like this, but they get to use this knowledge and apply it in their lives.
“What makes me excited for this project is being involved from start to finish on the mission and the exposure we get,” commented Ayush. “Preparing for flight, launch operations, recovery, data analysis, and so many things that go into it all and we get to be involved in every aspect of it. Things like how does the process work, how to get something into flight, then actually being able to fly it and seeing it work and then recovering it. It is more than just building it on the ground and testing it.”
The team highlighted that the goal behind it all is the ability to learn and have fun. In a project where every detail matters, they have to watch for the smallest thing on every piece of hardware or it will fail and cause it all not to work. With this, being able to collaborate and work as a team is critical. The way they learn to understand and cope with failure while being able to pick themselves up and move on as fast as possible has been key to the team’s success.
“Our team is very dedicated to this project and want to see it through and put their all into it, failures and successes. We have become a family and really bond over all the work that we do,” commented Mari.
Overall, the team reported that the flight was a resounding success! Their balloon rose to 75,000 feet and established long range connections between their ground station and the two radios on the balloon. These links allowed them to collect atmospheric data as well as live video streaming during the flight. Despite encountering issues with poor video quality and shortened streaming duration, the team is actively exploring solutions to enhance the link between the ground station radio and the ARDU camera’s radio transmitter to get better video quality for longer.
Despite the unexpected problems, the camera system on board recorded great footage throughout the flight. The 360-degree camera recorded from launch to landing, while the DJI cameras recorded around 50 minutes of footage. The team proudly noted that their tracking systems were able to trace the location of the balloon during the entire flight, with all four of the tracking systems beaconing the balloon’s location. This allowed them to successfully chase behind the balloon in cars and recover it from a tree.
With the next eclipse on the horizon in April of 2024, the team still has their work cut out for them to resolve unexpected problems encountered during the October flight. “The balloon burst earlier than we had expected, and we are currently investigating this issue to figure out why this happened,” Mari and Ayush stated. “The low temperature in the Stratosphere (-40 Celsius) caused some of our batteries to malfunction, and some of our atmospheric data and DJI video footage was lost due to data corruption.”
From now until next spring, the team will continue working together alongside Professor Cutler, gearing up for the next eclipse which will be a full, total eclipse of the sun. They plan to travel to Indiana to view and monitor the eclipse. These technical challenges drive the team to explore innovative solutions, fueling their excitement and dedication to this remarkable project.
Michigan Aerospace Engineering