UM Students, Researchers to Study Solar Eclipse in Chile

April 25, 2019

A UM-led team prepares to launch a research balloon during the Aug. 21, 2017, solar eclipse in Wyoming. MISSOULA – The Montana Space Grant Consortium has received funding from MathWorks Inc. and the NASA Science Mission Directorate to perform weather measurements during the coming July 2 solar eclipse that will be visible in parts of Chile and Argentina.

The University of Montana’s Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging System (BOREALIS) program will lead a team of Montana researchers traveling to La Serena, Chile, to take part in the first total solar eclipse study of its kind.

UM researchers on the team will include Jennifer Fowler, director of the Autonomous Aerial Systems Office, Flight Director Deb Ross, graduate student Thomas Colligan and undergraduate student Carl Spangrude. Montana State University undergraduate Jaxen Godfrey also will participate.

The team will collaborate with scientists at the Andes LiDAR observatory to perform the first total solar eclipse study that combines lower and upper atmospheric measurements to investigate propagation of atmospheric gravity waves through the entire atmosphere. It’s called a radiosonde field campaign.

“Atmospheric gravity waves are like bow waves from a ship on water,” Fowler said. “These waves transfer momentum and energy through the atmosphere. This study is the first of its kind to follow the waves from the troposphere and stratosphere into the mesosphere.”

She said the Montana students not only will participate in the balloon-borne research but also get to collaborate with scientists at the Andes LiDAR Observatory and glimpse a different measurement and analysis method.

Colligan, a master’s student in computer science who earned his B.A. in physics from UM in 2018, has worked on BOREALIS research since 2016 and was part of the research team that captured data and conducted outreach during the August 2017 total solar eclipse visible across parts of North America.

“The opportunities that have come along with BOREALIS are pretty much endless,” Colligan said. “I’ve been working on everything from the atmospheric gravity waves research to drones to putting sensors on cameras on high altitude balloons. It’s been a huge benefit that has provided me with experience in so many different fields.”

BOREALIS is Montana Space Grant Consortium’s high altitude-ballooning program at both UM and MSU. Students in the program work together to conceive, design and build payloads that are flown up to 100,000 feet.

Since 2004, more than 120 students have directly participated in research around the world, making UM-BOREALIS one of the most experienced higher education ballooning programs in the nation.

Montana Space Grant Consortium was established in 1991 as a component of NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. The Montana program is one of a national network of 52 consortia working to strengthen aerospace research and education in the U.S.

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Contact: Jen Fowler, Autonomous Aerial Systems Office at UM, 406-396-8085, jennifer.fowler@umontana.edu.