Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

University of Idaho students head east to study next week’s total eclipse

University of Idaho students launched weather balloons to gather eclipse-induced atmospheric data in Oregon during the annular eclipse last fall.  (Provided by the University of Idaho)

University of Idaho students are headed across the country to be in the path of next week’s total eclipse and study its effects.

Led by engineering professor Matthew Bernards, the trip will take eight undergraduate students and a graduate-level assistant to North Springfield, Pennsylvania, to catch the eclipse in its totality.

“We’ll be doing research for 30 straight hours. This is a phenomenal opportunity for the undergraduate students, because they really have to learn to be able to think on their feet in these field campaigns. It gives them the ability to engage firsthand and troubleshoot real time for a very important project that has a lot of interest nationwide and with NASA,” Bernards said.

Idaho is one of 53 teams stationed from Texas to Maine all simultaneously collecting data for NASA’s Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, which aims to observe the eclipses’ impact on weather while also providing experience to the next generation of scientists.

Upon arriving in Pennsylvania this weekend, students will launch a weather balloon every hour for 24 hours before the several-minute eclipse on Monday and six hours after it. A sensor will be taken by each weather balloon approximately 100,000 feet in the air before the balloon will burst in the atmosphere. The students will process the incoming data throughout the flight to see what happens to the atmosphere before, during and after the eclipse.

This data will detect atmospheric gravity waves produced by the solar eclipse. Bernards described these as “pressure waves” caused by a change in temperature that occurs when the atmosphere loses radiation from the sun.

“The eclipse gives us a sort of unique situation where we can quantify these gravity waves and better understand how they affect weather patterns and forecasting,” Bernards said.

Idaho junior Caeley Hodges has been part of the ballooning project since her freshman year. When the undergraduate researchers went to Oregon to see last year’s partial eclipse, she was a team lead.

“I had been waiting a year-and-a-half to get to work on an eclipse. It was so great after all our training to go to the location and know what to do. It makes you feel accomplished,” she said.

Hodges is even more excited to travel to Pennsylvania this weekend because it will be the first time she has seen a total eclipse. Even though the students will be busy with the science, they have scheduled their time so that all the students can stop what they are doing during the five minutes of darkness.

“We all get to pause and watch the eclipse with our fun glasses just like everyone else,” she said.

Spokane will see a much more limited eclipse, when approximately 27% of the sun will be covered, according to NASA.