CASPER, Wyo. — Excitement and anticipation reverberated through a small crowd on Friday morning as a high-altitude balloon was carefully inflated and slowly raised after hours of painstaking preparation.
Lightweight boxes of cargo containing high-definition cameras and other scientific equipment were tethered to the balloon as Casper’s familiar stiff breezes kicked up just at the wrong time.
Suddenly, before most people could figure out exactly what was happening, a collective “aw” was heard from the center of the action.
The balloon escaped, zooming with the wind at a surprising speed up and toward the sun, leaving the cargo boxes securely in the grass.
Several long seconds passed before someone on the crew spoke. “We’ve got another one,” he said. A spare latex high-altitude balloon was pulled from a box, and the crew quickly restarted the process.
This was just a practice launch, and a perfect reminder about why so many practice runs are necessary.
The project is part of a Casper College, Kelly Walsh High School and Natrona County High School invitation by NASA to participate in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project for the upcoming annular solar eclipse on Oct. 14, and also the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. Unfortunately, neither one of those events will be fully visible in Casper, but the balloon crews will travel to better viewing areas.
Andrew Young, instructor for physics and astronomy at Casper College, said the ballooning project is being helmed by Montana State University. The first actual launch will be held with another participating institution, Central Wyoming College, at Snow College in Utah.
“They were gracious in being a host for our community here to allow us to go there and set up and launch our balloons at their facility,” he said.
Much of the hardware for the launches was built during the 2023 spring semester by students with Casper College, KWHS and NCHS, who are all enrolled in the High-Altitude Ballooning class. The class will continue this fall and into next spring, according to a release from Casper College.
Some of the Casper College departments involved in the project are from mathematics, physics, engineering and electronics.
Young said while eclipse events have been very well researched, there’s still always something new to learn and discover.
“There’s always something to add on to our knowledge base,” he said. “The thing about science is, yes, we’ve seen it before, maybe we’ve done it before. But guess what, we’re gonna do it again and add to that, and maybe there’s something serendipitous that we didn’t see before.”
All of the data focusing on atmospheric science or engineering collected by the teams will eventually be analyzed and released publicly, according to NASA.