Louisiana students visit SIU, propel weather balloons 100,000 feet

By Cory Ray

Students from four Louisiana schools said they never expected to conduct research for NASA while in college, let alone launch weather balloons 100,000 feet into the sky.

The Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE) took part in a NASA-sponsored live-stream project involving 55 teams across the nation.

On Monday, student teams from Louisiana State University, Delgado Community College, Louisiana Tech and McNeese State University launched two weather balloons carrying four different experiments into the stratosphere.


“The eclipse really offers us a chance to get something on a grand scale,” Brian Schaefer, a senior from McNeese studying mechanical engineering.

LaSPACE manager Colleen Fava said the multi-experiment project began two years ago and culminated on Monday.

The eight-foot-tall balloons were launched from Saluki Stadium in rapid succession at 11:50 and 11:51 a.m., approximately one minute before the partial eclipse began at 11:52 a.m. in Carbondale. By the time those balloons reached their maximum height, they expanded to 40 feet in height, according to Fava.

The first balloon carried experiments conducted by LaTech, McNeese and Delgado, with those experiments recording observations on UV radiation, solar polar and speed of sound.

The second balloon released carried camera equipment NASA used to live stream the eclipse, with LSU students performing that experiment.

Brad Landry, an LSU senior studying physics, said in practice runs, full ascension took anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes depending on weather with an average ascension rate of 1,100 feet per minute.

The balloons were scheduled to return to the Earth around 2:22 p.m. and were found using automated positioning systems following the end of totality, according to William Dever, a junior studying electrical engineering from McNeese.


Students arrived in Carbondale late Friday night, and they said none of them had a moment to relax in preparation for the eclipse, but they were excited to conduct some research that had never before been studied.

A weather balloon launched at 11:52 a.m. Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, at SIU Stadium following two others launched by students from Louisiana colleges.
(Cory Ray | @coryray_DE)

For John Aguillard, a junior double majoring in electrical engineering and physics at LaTech, the project is an opportunity to get people excited about science.

“The best are really the moments when you’re talking to a member of the public who is excited about [your research] and have that childlike obsession,” said Aguillard.

Louisiana State University

The live feed, shown via NASA on campus and at the Carbondale Civic Center, came from the weather balloon launched by Louisiana State University.

NASA’s website listed multiple live streams from the other 54 teams across the nation, including the Carbondale location’s stream recorded by LSU, said Chris Shayer, a senior studying software engineering.

Delgado Community College

A student team of nine from Delgado studied solar irradiance, or a measure of the light emitted by sun.

Breanna Lemieux, a second year student studying electronics and engineering technology at Delgado, said her team expected irradiance values to decrease as the moon crossed over the sun, but they were particularly interested in the consequences such loss of solar power could mean for Earth.

“We want to see how will this affect any process that uses solar power on Earth,” Lemieux said. “We want to see if the solar power will get to point where applications like solar panels will be affected.”

She said they used devices known as photo dials, which measure the amount of light emitted from the sun.

Lemieux, who already holds a bachelor degree in engineering, attended Delgado to obtain prerequisites for graduate school, and she said she never expected to work alongside NASA while in community college.

“I was just happy to take a few classes,” she said. “I never thought I’d end up here.”

McNeese State University

A team of five from McNeese studied how the solar eclipse affected the speed of sound using two separate instruments: a satellite with “ultra-sensative” sonar attached to a mirror as well as humidity and pressure sensor.

Brett Schaefer, project manager for the team and a senior studying electrical engineering, said the sonar device is typically used in robotics for sensing objects using sounds, similar to echolocation techniques used by dolphins and bats.

However, using the mirror, the team modified the equipment to allow sound to bounce off a mirror to measure how long that sound takes to come back to the sonar. Brett Schaefer said, from there, they calculated the speed of sound 100,000 feet in the air.

He said the humidity and pressure sensor was used to help them measure theoretical speed of sound in the air, or to calculate what they expected the speed of sound to be based on weather conditions in the stratosphere.

Those theoretical numbers were then compared to the actual data taken by the sensor.

While the team’s numbers have yet to be released, Brett Schaefer said before the launch he expected the observations to show lower speed of sound than opposed to normal conditions because sound travels more slowly in lower temperatures.

The temperature in Carbondale lowered to 86 degrees Fahrenheit following totality, down from 90 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of the partial phase, according to the Weather Channel.

But he said did not know if his expectation would truly be met as the only data he found regarding similar experiments comes from almost 60 years ago.

“As far as we can tell, it has not been repeated,” said Brian Schaefer. “Anything in science needs to be repeated to make sure nothing has drastically changed.”

Students from Louisiana schools moments before launching two weather balloons Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 at SIU Stadium. The 8-foot-tall balloons would later expand to 40 feet after traveling 100,000 feet into the sky. “To launch a balloon in a stadium full of people is not the first thing that came to mind that I’d be doing in college,” said Chris Shayer, senior studying software engineering. (Cory Ray | @coryray_DE)

Louisiana Tech University

Research from the LaTech team focused primarily on observing changes in ultraviolet radiation from the sun, according to Aguillard.

“There’s no precursor experiments,” he said. “We’re doing some of the first collection of this data at all.”

Aguillard said there are three types of UV radiation emitted by the sun: A, B and C.

UV type A is common, Aguillard said, but type B is partially filtered by the ozone layer and type C is completely filtered by the ozone.

For example, many sunscreens are designed to protect against UV type A and type B radiation.

Type C can only be observed higher in the atmosphere, Aguillard said.

“You have things in space that measure it and you have things on the ground that measure,” he said, “but you don’t have a lot of in-between higher than planes can fly.”

The LaTech team launched sensors on balloons that measured complete radiation levels as well as other sensors that individually measured the levels of each type of UV radiation.

“You realize that you’re one of the first people in the world to ever see this or look at this or make this correlation, and that’s exciting,” he said.

Staff writer Cory Ray can be reached at cray@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @coryray_de.

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