(PHOTOS) High-altitude balloon launched at Casper College for upcoming eclipse study

A crew of Casper College instructors and Kelly Walsh High School students work to inflate a balloon at a high altitude during a practice launch for the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project Friday morning at Casper College. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. Excitement and anticipation rang out in a small crowd Friday morning as a high-flying balloon was carefully inflated and slowly lifted after hours of painstaking preparation.

Lightweight boxes of goods containing high-definition cameras and other scientific equipment were tethered to the balloon as Casper’s familiar stiff breeze picked up at just the wrong time.

Suddenly, before most people could figure out exactly what was happening, a collective Aw was heard from the center of the action.

A crew of Casper College instructors and Kelly Walsh High School students work to inflate a balloon at a high altitude during a practice launch for the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project Friday morning at Casper College. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

The balloon escaped, hurtling with the wind at astonishing speed and into the sun, leaving the cargo boxes safely in the grass.

Several long seconds passed before any of the crew spoke. We have another one, she said. A spare high-altitude latex balloon was pulled from a box and the crew quickly restarted the process.

This was just a test launch and a perfect reminder as to why so much testing is needed.

People look skyward after the first attempt at the balloon that unexpectedly escaped on Friday. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

The project is part of an invitation by Casper College and NASA’s Kelly Walsh High School to participate in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project for the upcoming annular solar eclipse on October 14 and also the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. Unfortunately, none of these events will be fully visible in Casper, but balloon crews will travel to better viewing areas.

Andrew Young, a physics and astronomy instructor at Casper College, said the balloon project is being led by Montana State University. The first actual launch will be held with another participating institution, Snow College in Utah.

Cargo boxes containing high-definition cameras and other scientific equipment are checked and secured before the balloon is launched. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

They were kind to host our community here to allow us to go there and set up and launch our balloons at their facility, she said.

Much of the launch hardware was built during the spring semester of 2023 by students from Casper College and Kelly Walsh High School, all enrolled in the high-altitude balloon course. The class will continue this fall and next spring, according to a release from Casper College.

Some of the Casper College departments involved in the project come from mathematics, physics, engineering and electronics.

The equipment for tracing the trajectory of the ball is set up before the launch. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

Young said that while eclipse events have been very well researched, there is always something new to learn and discover.

There is always something to add to our knowledge base, he said. The thing about science is, yeah, we’ve seen this before, maybe we’ve already. But guess what, we’re going to redo it and add it, and maybe there’s something serendipitous that we haven’t seen before.

Any data focused on atmospheric science or engineering collected by the teams will eventually be analyzed and publicly released, according to NASA.

The first high-flying balloon was seen after it broke free of its tether during a practice pitch Friday morning at Casper College. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
Cotton gloves are used to handle the balloon at high altitudes, which are damaged by skin oils. The balloon reaches up to 100,000 miles above the Earth. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
The first attempt to launch a high-altitude test balloon before it unexpectedly broke free from its tether. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
(Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

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