Physics Meets Engineering for Student Eclipse Experiment

Aug 30, 2017
Physics Meets Engineering for Student Eclipse Experiment


“Downtime” isn’t a word in the vocabulary of most Florida Polytechnic University students.

That was certainly the case with Damon Plyler, Nick Fauble and Blake Taunton, three students who found themselves with two empty weeks after wrapping up summer classes.

Instead of taking it easy, the trio dove headfirst into a project to launch a weather balloon during last week’s solar eclipse. They had a week to put everything together: the physical payload and the physics of sending that payload into the stratosphere.

“It was truly a multidisciplinary effort,” says Damon, of Tampa, a senior studying Electrical Engineering. “We were working with microprocessors, calculating lift and drag, figuring out the atmospheric pressure. It was a lot of fun.”

Their blueprint was an 8-year-old research paper published by two MIT students who had attempted a similar launch in 2009. Eight years is eons in the high-tech world, so there were a lot of adjustments to make. Nick, of Tecumseh, Michigan, who is majoring in Computer Engineering, improved on the original design by rigging a hula hoop and ball bearing setup that stabilized the weather balloon and prevented it from spinning during launch.

“We wanted to take the original project and put a twist on it,” Nick explains.

The team successfully met their accelerated timeline and made it to rural Georgia with a day to spare for set-up and testing. As the total eclipse approached, the helium-filled balloon soared upward exactly as they had planned. What they didn’t count on: their store-bought GPS tracker failing.

All the data and tests they had set up — total UV intensity, volatile compounds in the atmosphere, a hacked Nikon camera taking pictures every couple seconds — was swallowed up by the woods of Georgia. While there’s a chance a hunter or land surveyor might one day find the weather balloon and the team’s contact information, Damon acknowledges it’s slim.

Still, the team is positive. They proved they could pull off a demanding project in a short timeframe and they had fun in the process.

“Not every experiment ends with success and that’s part of learning,” Damon says. “If nothing else, we got to experience the full eclipse.”