Montana Research Group Harvests Stellar Eclipse Data

September 07, 2017

A University of Montana-led team prepares a balloon launch in Wyoming before the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.


– When the nation paused Aug. 21 to observe the spectacle of a total solar eclipse turning day to night across the middle of the country, research teams from Montana were busy gathering some of the best data resulting from the event.

Based at the University of Montana, Jennifer Fowler is assistant director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded organization intended to boost aerospace research and education. Fowler said her organization took three teams to the “path of totality” in Wyoming, where they launched 24 research balloons to study the eclipse.

“We gathered the highest spatial and temporal resolution of atmospheric data at our site compared to other research teams in the path of totality,” Fowler said. “We did some great science, and there may be breakthroughs and papers resulting from that data we gathered that day. Stay tuned.”

She said their 40-person research team divided into three groups to study the eclipse in north, central and south Wyoming. The groups were located in or near the towns of Lusk, Fort Laramie and Veteran.

“These locations were chosen to give the proper spatial resolution for our data,” Fowler said. “The goal was to be as close to the north and south edges of the eclipse path, and the central site was as close to the central line as possible.”

The groups arrived at their respective sites Aug. 18 to begin site surveys and system tests. Balloon data collecting was done Aug. 20-22.

The work included 19 radiosonde balloon launches. Also used by the National Weather Service, radiosondes are small instruments flown to gather temperature, relative humidity and GPS measurements. Using GPS, the sensors infer pressure, wind speed and wind direction.

“These measurements will be used for a wide variety of projects, both current and future,” Fowler said. “The temporal resolution of our launches is unmatched for this eclipse.”

She said they started launching balloons from the central site in six-hour increments 24 hours before the eclipse. Then all sites launched four balloons from “first contact” of the eclipse to shortly after the moment of totality on Aug. 21. The final launch was on Aug. 22 to complete the baseline dataset.

Besides 19 radiosonde launches, there were five launches of larger balloons. Those balloons went up just prior to totality with payloads that included cameras, ultraviolet sensors, temperature sensors and tracking equipment.

“All systems received valid data, and there are multiple videos from launch through totality that include the path of the moons shadow as it passes across the Earth’s surface,” Fowler said.

She said large balloons were filled in a farm equipment hangar, and the team struggled with winds gusting to 15 mph on the ground near Fort Laramie.     

“The team crawled each of the balloons out and fought gusty winds while walking them to the nearby field, holding them as low as possible before launch,” Fowler said. “It was quite the adventure.”

Much of the research team was composed of college students and volunteers from UM, Flathead Valley Community College, Miles Community College and Montana State University. Other notables included Eric Hardwick a Sentinel High School (Missoula) student volunteer and Joe Youngberg, a Murdock Trust Partner in Science grant recipient and teacher from Frenchtown High School.

“This was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had, because we got to see many different pieces and years of problem solving come together flawlessly to make a novel system work,” said Frederick Bunt, a UM graduate student.

Perhaps the most interesting volunteers were Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung, two elementary-age Seattle sisters who have launched their own near-space balloons in the past.

“It’s gratifying that these teams led by researchers from UM were able to use this incredible eclipse opportunity to lead in several important science initiatives,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “I know our students learned a lot, and I look forward to the results gleaned from the data they gathered, which I believe will lead to important scientific discoveries.”

Contact: Jennifer Fowler, assistant director, Montana Space Grant Consortium, 406-396-8085,