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Students, NASA Partner to Gather Critical Data That Will Impact Viewing of the August Solar Eclipse

The NASA Space Grant network is in a unique position to engage the public in an awe-inspiring and educational way and for surprisingly small cost.

(TNS) -- Through a NASA Kentucky Space Grant, 20 students from the University of Kentucky, visited the Russellville-Logan County Airport as part of a eclipse ballooning project that is gathering critical data which will impact viewing of the Great American Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Total eclipses are rare and very impactful events. For those who have witnessed them, it is a memory they keep forever. The continental U.S. hasn’t had a total eclipse since 1979 (northwest only). The NASA Space Grant network is in a unique position to engage the public in an awe-inspiring and educational way and for surprisingly small cost.

As of July 21, 2016, 52 teams from 30 different states across the United States have signed up for the national eclipse ballooning project and participated in the the May and July workshops. Coordination events will take place over the next year in order to get teams used to collaborating with each other as a progressive system and make for a successful nationwide event come eclipse day.

Nine UK students under the direction of Dr. Suzanne Smith, Director of the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium, come as far away as Virginia and Ohio to participate in a dry run launch of two balloons holding transmitting equipment and cameras Tuesday, June 21 at the Russellville-Logan County Airport. Those involved included: Mollye Malone, Ginny Smith, Christen Setters, Abby Oleye, Theresa Martin, Matthew Graham, Patrick Heelan, Colton Pugh and Tristan Hagerman.

The University of Kentucky is the host institution for NASA’s aerospace workforce development program in Kentucky, the NASA Kentucky Space Grant. This is a statewide partnership between Kentucky and NASA supporting student teams (like the Eclipse Balloon teams at UK, HCC, and BCTC; the national champion rocket launch team at UofL; and many others).

“We initially planned to launch from a Girl Scout camp west of Land Between the Lakes,” said Dr. Smith. “We started checking winds and balloon predictions three days out. On Monday morning we realized the winds and track were not safe or not favorable for recovery. I called Gen. Jerry Humble, of the Russellville-Logan County Airport Board, and he made it happen for us to come to Russellville where predictions had good tracks.”

Kentucky’s higher education partnership with NASA, the NASA Kentucky Space Grant, provides inspiring aerospace opportunities for 50-100 students each year all across the Commonwealth. For example, Kentucky’s UofL students won the 2017 NASA rocket launch competition, UK and Morehead students launched two satellites from the International Space Station, UK students will launch an experiment to test re-entry thermal protection, and HCC, BCTC and UK students are testing systems now preparing to live-stream video of the eclipse from the edge of space on Aug. 21.

Each student has introduced new ideas and elements of their own, but they all have identical still image and streaming video packages as well. They will be all along the path from Oregon to South Carolina. Eight teams will be launching 10 total balloons in Kentucky.

Christen Setters, a grad student at UK, says she is super excited to be part of this project. “It is exciting to be a part of something so big,” said Setters, who is from Ohio. “To be able to stream an eclipse at 100,000 feet isn’t normally something that is done. This is an experience.”

Ginny Smith, studying mechanical engineering, says it’s “incredible.” She is in her senior year at UK and feels being part of the team is a great opportunity. “To learn and achieve things of this magnitude, I didn’t think it was possible,” said Smith.

Retired General Jerry Humble was very excited as well the team chose the airport for its experiment.”We are always promoting our community and airport,” said Humble. “It is great to have them here and we hope they come back.”

Humble and the board have big plans for the future of the airport, which include extending the runway to support larger aircraft and possibly becoming a hub in the region.

©2017 the News-Democrat & Leader (Russellville, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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