Green River Star -

By STEPHANIE THOMPSON
People Editor 

Former GR student helps NASA

Eclipse viewed from a balloon

 

August 30, 2017

Courtesy photo

It was an experience of a life time.

Not only to be part of the 2017 solar eclipse, but to be a member of one of 55 teams selected from NASA to show the solar eclipse live.

Gina Bestgen, a 2008 GRHS graduate, who graduated on May 6, 2017, from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering already put that degree to use by working on NASA's total solar eclipse balloon project.

"Essentially, I applied for a senior design project and got on the solar eclipse group to cover Nebraska," Bestgen said.

Through the course of the project, Bestgen became the deputy project manager. She was working with other SDSM&T students and some South Dakota high-school students on the project.

Their task was to launch an 8-foot helium-filled, high-altitude balloon into the air on Aug. 21 near Mitchell, Neb., to capture the solar eclipse.The balloon had numerous pieces of electronic equipment attached to it.

"It really doesn't do any good to launch a balloon and not have anything attached to it," Bestgen said.

Attached to the balloon were what the group called "payloads." Each payload contained something different. One of Bestgen's jobs was to make sure the payloads total weight didn't exceed 12 pounds.

According to the SDCM&T website http://www.sdsmt.edu, the equipment in the payloads consisted of "a radiation detector to help determine the flux of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere during the eclipse – a similar detector will also be run on the ground; a light detector to determine the amount of light reduction during the eclipse; a thin strip of on-board bacteria that will be sent to NASA labs after the flight for testing; a GPS tracking system; and two separate cameras, one with live footage showing the eclipse from high altitude another with recorded footage for later use."

Bestgen said the rotation mitigation system, that was in a payload was on board to make sure the balloon could be brought down when they needed it to. She said once the balloon was popped, a ground chase team made sure to quickly recover the payloads.

"If it travels too far we won't ever see the payloads again," Bestgen said.

All of the payloads were recovered and everything worked well for the team in Nebraska. However, there was one problem. The camera that was supposed to be recording live wasn't working and there was no live feed.

Bestgen said the team is still analyzing the data to find out what went wrong with that part of the project.

Bestgen said they had been training since February of 2017, but others on the project had trained even longer.

"It was a long learning experience," she said.

A lot of planning went into ensuring the balloon would reach the proper altitude for the eclipse.

They sent up test balloons to see how quickly they would rise. The more helium added to the balloon the faster it would go up, she said.

Even with all the testing, which included about 10 test launches, the balloon launched on Aug. 21 didn't behave like the test balloons. During all the other balloon launches, the balloon reached about 100,000 feet, however on Aug. 21, the balloon only reached 65,000.

"It was just sitting still. Not moving up," Bestgen said. "It was just crazy. It's the smoothest footage we've ever got from a balloon launch. I'm still not sure why it happened."

Even though the balloon didn't get as high as it was supposed to, it still captured amazing footage of the eclipse.

One interesting fact a lot of people aren't aware of it how much the size of the balloon changes in different altitudes. Bestgen said when the balloon is filled on the ground it's about 8 to 10 feet in diameter. When it gets up to about 80,000 to 100,000 feet up, it is about 36 times that size.

Bestgen had a great experience and it's something she won't forget anytime soon.

"The group I got to work with was great," Bestgen said. "I'm sad it's over."

 

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