Stills from the GoPro side cam on the Video Tx balloon flight, showing the eclipse shadow from ~70,000 feet.
Where were you on Monday, 21 August, 2017? For everyone on the Far Horizons eclipse team, the answer to this question is something that we will remember fondly and vividly for the rest of our lives.
Over the last two years, Far Horizons volunteers, interns, and staff have been working on a high-altitude balloon mission to capture 360-degree virtual reality footage of the 2017 total solar eclipse, as well as to live-stream separate (2D) footage of the same. On Aug. 21st, the team successfully launched two HABs from the Perryville Municipal Airport in southern Missouri, one balloon carried the 360 video system (equipped with two Kodak PixPro SP360 4K cameras), and the other carried the video transmission system (using two GoPro Hero 3 cameras).
Overall, the mission was a success. We were able to retrieve both payloads (the video transmission payload retrieval was a bit of an adventure), and we’ve done some initial stitching of the 360 videos from the launch and totality. We’re currently working on some tighter stitching, for more professional displays (i.e., suitable for large full-dome formats, such as the Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater).
The original plan was for most of the team to participate in the launch, and then continue on to help with payload retrieval. (Predicted tracks for both balloons indicated they would land in southern Illinois.) However, given the formidable traffic warnings and the fact that the bridge from Perryville was only one of two motor-traffic bridges spanning the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, MO, this idea was abandoned and, instead, we split up: The launch team was reduced to just a skeleton crew (who slept overnight at the Perryville airport, in case bridge traffic kept them from reaching the airport in the morning), and two retrieval teams, one staged in Zeigler, IL, for the 360 video payload, and one staged in Murphysboro, IL, for the video transmission payload.
As per the original plan, the video receiving ground station was set up in Carbondale, IL, on the top of one of SIU’s campus buildings, not far from the stadium. (Btw, there was another team of Adler folks – astronomers and educators – who facilitated eclipse activities at the stadium.) Unfortunately, due to the high level of interference in the vicinity of the stadium, the video receiving team was unable to get the video to stream. However, we still got some nice pics from that balloon (see top of this post).
Special thanks to Ken & Vern Cline, who opened their beautiful home in Murphysboro, IL, to a bunch of total strangers (plus, our fearless leader, Ken Walczak, who was not a total stranger, but who I think we can all agree is totally strange 😉 – just kidding, Ken!).
The Clines provided comfy sleeping accommodations for 8 of us for three nights, PLUS fed all 11+ of us every day, every meal, for four days. (Some folks, like the Video Rx team, did not stay in Murphysboro, so, unfortunately for them, they missed out on most of that.) The Clines & their daughter, Robin, did so much to make everyone’s experience a pleasant one. We are greatly thankful for their wonderful hospitality!
We’d also like to thank Ms. Lavender, a neighbor of the Clines’, who let three people from our team bunk at her home during our stay. Those lucky folks raved about Ms. Lavender’s amazing cookies!
On the Saturday night before the eclipse, the FH team joined Adler Galaxy Riders, at the Big Muddy microbrewery in Murphysboro. A crowd gathered there in the humid heat to hear Adler astronomers Mark Subbarao, Michelle Nichols, and Lucianne Walkowicz talk about the eclipse (and general relativity). Steve Burkland and other Galaxy Riders gave demos and facilitated telescope viewing. Far Horizons brought along the 360 video payload for show-and-tell, along with Google Cardboards for people to view previous FH balloon flights in VR. Ken gave an impromptu talk on balloon launches. Good beer, good times!
One of Far Horizons’ interns, Eleanor Marshall, had this to say about her overall eclipse experience:
“We were exchanging stories, enjoying a jam session, sleeping on WWII cots (with the company of the ghost of Jerry Lee Capps), playing bags, learning new games, driving around farms late in the night to find the payload, listening to Africa, finding Chris’ doppelganger, launching high altitude balloons, or simultaneously taking off our glasses to experience the magic of totality. If you asked me what I thought would be the most moving part of this trip, I would have said Totality. If you asked me what was the most moving part of this trip, I would say the people.“
Below are more detailed accounts of each branch of the mission, including some narratives and photo favorites from more of the volunteers and interns on the team.
LAUNCH (Perryville, MO)
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… Superman??? Yeah, we don’t know why either, but he was there, along with his buddy, Cyclops(?), and hundreds of other folks at the Perryville airport for the eclipse. There were also two other balloon teams, one from DePaul U., led by Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, and the other from UIUC (Illinois Space Society), led by Robert Maksimowicz.
This VOA news video does a great job of covering the event, including interviews with Far Horizons volunteers Annelise Goldman and Max Bowman, as well as Far Horizons Program Manager Ken Walczak and Teen Programs Manager Chris Bresky.
Max shared with us this narrative of his experience as a member of the balloon launch team:
“My favorite moment of the eclipse took place when I let go of the video transmission payload and watched the balloon start ascending. I felt as though a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was excited to bring a new perspective of the total solar eclipse to the public. Only a high altitude balloon can image a total solar eclipse from ninety-thousand feet and demonstrate a near-space view of a celestial phenomenon. Not only did our high-altitude balloons capture views of the sun during the eclipse, but also the incredible shadow it created on the Earth’s surface. It was great to be a part of such a rare event, and I feel very fortunate I could experience it with such a fantastic, talented team. I’ll never forget this amazing experience for as long as I live.“
Special shout out to Trish Erzfeld, organizer of the Perryville Solarfest, who, among many things, arranged for sleeping accommodations at the airport for the launch team the night before the eclipse.
Ken made this audio recording leading up to and after totality. Can you tell when totality first began?
VIDEO RX GROUND STATION (Carbondale, IL)
Leading the video receiving team was our former Far Horizons Engineer, the incomparable Lou Nigra, who is now retired, but, fortunately for us, continues to give his time and expertise to Far Horizons as a volunteer. He explained that direct streaming of the received video wasn’t possible because, due to radio frequency interference, the analog video was too “jumpy” for it to be digitized for streaming. So, his team pointed a camera at the monitor displaying the received video and streamed that. Lou noted, “It was better than nothing, but not by much.”
The Video Rx occasionally got some fairly good reception. The above still shot (left) shows the eclipse footage from the balloon (you can make out part of the shadow) together with a view of the surroundings from the rooftop. The still on the right shows an example of when the reception was not so great. (Unfortunately, there was a lot of this.)
One of the Far Horizons program’s longest term volunteers, Fred Johnson, was on the video receiving team (along with his wife, Joyce). Fred shared the below photo from their vantage on the roof of SIU’s Neckers building (where the video receiving station was set up), along with his following poetic eclipse note:
“Totality was stunning- the bright crescent of the sun finally disappearing in a flash, an actual diamond ring of light, instantly leaving behind a simple black disk in the sky with ethereal plumes of the (otherwise unseen) corona reaching way out, while all around a sudden eery darkness covers us essentially everywhere except for a distant twilight at the far horizons, all accompanied by the loudness of nature exclaiming “this demands a reaction!!!” with every cricket like insect shouting out together, “what time is this???” As if some huge alien had reached down and grabbed us. Only two and a half minutes and then could it possibly be “back to normal”??? Well, there is clock work.“
Special thanks to Bob Baer (Computer/Electronics Specialist in the SIU Dept. of Physics, and Co-Chair of the Southern Illinois Eclipse 2017 – 2024 Steering Committee) and Dr. Richard Holland (SIU Lecturer of Physics), who helped arrange the site for the video receiving team’s ground station.
RETRIEVAL CREW #1 (Murphysboro, IL)
Retrieval Crew #1 was a two-person team, consisting of Mark Hammergren and his wife, Alina. For those of you who don’t know Mark, he is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, director of Astro-Science Workshop, and one of the founders of the Far Horizons program. He and Alina were stationed at the 17th Street Barbecue restaurant during the eclipse. Mark was even listed on their menu!
Mark and Alina were in place to go after the Video Transmission payload, but unfortunately the APRS transmitter on that payload glitched out and stopped sending packets while it was still ~50,000 feet up. So, they regrouped with the rest of the team. Mark led a small group out later that night, armed with a beacon finder, to try to locate the payload based on calculations extrapolated from the available transmitter data. Unfortunately, that attempt failed, but a second attempt the following morning succeeded, largely thanks to additional data that we were able to get from the 2-way comm on that same payload, plus fresh batteries in the beacon finder. (Retrieval of the 360 payload was a breeze, by comparison.)
Also remaining in Murphysboro was Dr. Yang Su of IIT’s Dept. of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering, who rode down with most of the FH team in the van from Adler. Yang conducted a GPS ionospheric experiment during the eclipse. We look forward to learning his results!
RETRIEVAL CREW #2 (Zeigler, IL)
Retrieval Crew #2 was responsible for retrieving the 360 video payload. Based on the predicted flight track, the initial plan was for the crew to stage in Marion, IL. However, there were concerns about traffic, since it appeared Marion would be a popular spot for eclipse viewing, being right near the center line. So, the night before, it was decided to instead stage the crew in the town of Zeigler, IL, which was situated in a good place compared to the predicted track and, importantly, was also still in the path of totality. That last-minute decision turned out to be one of the best choices we made!
Two volunteers on the crew, Ryan Pierce and Elizabeth Koprucki, drove to Zeigler separately, as they were not staying in Murphysboro with the rest of the team. They arrived first and scouted out a place to set up, deciding on the Zeigler Library parking lot. Another great choice!
A sign in the library window indicated that the library would be closed for the day, and that no eclipse glasses were available. A little while later, all that changed.
It started when the postal carrier stopped at the library to deliver mail. We introduced ourselves and chatted with her for a bit, offering her a pair of eclipse glasses (we’d brought over 300 pairs with us). Not long after she left, the librarian pulled up. She’d learned from the postal carrier that we were there and that we had eclipse glasses. She opened the library and took down the sign! (We were all very grateful for the resulting access to the facilities and air conditioning.)
Word spread. Some folks stopped by just to get eclipse glasses and move on, but many people stayed and we had a nice-sized group of folks by the time the eclipse began. One volunteer on the crew, Jeff Wiedemann, set up his telescope with solar filter, so that folks could get a close-up view of the Sun. We also answered questions about eclipses and pointed out the crescents in the shadows of tree leaves.
A friendly police officer stopped by to chat briefly and find out who we were. He was reluctant at first to accept the eclipse glasses we offered him, since he knew he would be patrolling and he didn’t anticipate having a chance to use them. However, he returned a while later to get more, after having passed out the pairs we’d given him to folks he saw during his rounds. Another friendly officer also stopped by, and we gave him glasses as well. We were very glad that they were able to distribute glasses to other parts of the town!
We learned the Zeigler Fire Department was not far down the street, so we walked there to pay a visit and introduce ourselves. They were very friendly and welcoming, and expressed a lot of interest in our HAB mission. (One of them informed me that he’s an amateur radio operator, but that it has been some time since he’s been active with it. He came by the library, bringing his family, and he stayed until we pulled off to start the balloon chase. We had a great conversation and I’m hoping he has been inspired now to take up HAM radio again.) The firefighters all let us know that they would be available to help us if we needed assistance during the retrieval. Such great folks! We were so honored to have met them.
We met so many kind and wonderful people during our time in Zeigler. We hope to come back and visit in 7 years! 🙂
360 video payload retrieval
As it turned out, this retrieval was one of our easiest ones ever. For starters, fortunately, most of the time on our way to the payload, we were going in the opposite direction of everyone else. Secondly, with the altitude control system, the balloon does not burst or even completely deflate, so it hovers over its landing spot. Also, the APRS transmitter behaved, so we had packets all the way to landing. Didn’t take long to spot our balloon!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
There were record-breaking crowds on Museum Campus in Chicago, where ~60,000 spectators flocked to the Adler Planetarium for the eclipse. From Chicago, it only reached ~87% totality, and clouds obscured the view much of the time, but that didn’t stop folks from coming out to see what they could and join the camaraderie.
By 9 AM, the line to the Adler stretched back as far as Soldier Field. Some of our Adler colleagues said that a cheer from the crowd on Museum Campus (perhaps when the eclipse reached its maximum, or perhaps for a gap in the cloud cover) was heard by folks at Navy Pier!