The mid-valley is holding one of the nation's biggest parties for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, and Linn-Benton Community College is bringing the balloons.

Specifically, about an hour before the eclipse begins, the college's Space Exploration Team will launch one helium balloon, about the size of a refrigerator, into the atmosphere.

The launch will take place from an Oregon State University research vessel roughly 50 kilometers off the Oregon coast. The goal: obtaining the nation's very first pictures of the moon's shadow as it begins to cross the sun.

LBCC's balloon will be carrying a payload of cameras, modems and equipment to accomplish the goal. The Space Exploration Team will be monitoring its speed, direction, altitude and the most critical part: the video feed, which NASA will stream live via its website, www.nasa.gov

That's if everything goes just right. So to have the best shot at everything going just right, team members have been sending up practice balloons from the campus track through much of the spring. They plan another half-dozen or so between now and August.

Last week's mission had to be scrubbed: too much cloud cover to meet the Federal Aviation Administration's 50-percent-clear rule. The one before that went pretty well, except for the payload lodging in a 90-foot tree when it came down.

And this particular Saturday, May 27, came with its own complications. Liftoff went perfectly, right at noon into a cloudless sky, but the ground station wasn't receiving communication from the payload to allow it to be tracked.

"We can point it by hand, it's just not as accurate," said Levi Willmeth, the Space Exploration Team club president, adding wryly: "As long as it doesn't move, we're in great shape." 

For several minutes Saturday, the balloon stayed nearly directly over the college, allowing team members to align the receiving antenna manually. When it flew too high to be seen, adviser Parker Swanson, a computer science instructor at LBCC, tracked it via ham radio signals relayed to a website he could monitor on his phone.

Once launched, the payload can be recovered in one of two ways: Either the balloon flies so high and expands so far it eventually pops (usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 feet), sending the payload parachuting to earth, or the team sends a signal to the payload to cut itself free from the tether. This can be done either through direct communication with the payload or by programming in a particular time to cut loose even if communication is lost.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday, the payload and parachute came down about 12 miles northeast of the college, in a field near Freitag Road just south of Mill Creek. The balloon popped earlier than expected — rose too far, too fast, the group figures — and the parachute tangled on the way down, resulting in a rougher-than-expected landing. 

Luckily, said team member Dawson Riethmayer, only the casing and part of the cutdown equipment had some damage. The rest of the materials were more or less unscathed, "which is amazing, to be honest," he said.

No matter what problems occurred Saturday, the launch will be considered a success, Riethmayer said. The collected information will show both what went wrong and what went right. "Either way, it's still great data."

LBCC is among 54 schools throughout the nation planning to live-stream the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

It's a project sponsored by the Oregon Space Grant Consortium and is part of the NASA eclipse ballooning mission, organized largely by Montana State University. Willmeth, Swanson and others from LBCC spent a week at Montana State last summer learning about the project. 

It's not the first time the LBCC Space Exploration Team — strictly an extracurricular club — has worked on a major project with NASA.

In 2015, team members designed and built an experiment to travel on a NASA sounding rocket and measure cosmic rays. Another rocket experiment last year, designed in cooperation with OSU's physics and engineering department, wasn't as successful but did lay the foundation for future advanced physics experiments on longer-duration balloons. 

The connection with the federal aerospace research agency has led to prestigious opportunities for three current or former LBCC students. 

Willmeth, who graduated from LBCC in December 2016 and is now a senior at OSU, is traveling this summer to Fairmont, West Virginia, for a NASA internship testing software for drones and satellites.

Brianna Smith-Sparks, a 2015 LBCC graduate and former Space Exploration Team member who graduates from OSU next month, landed a Pathways position at Johnson Space Center in Texas starting this fall.

Delphine Le Brun Colon, who will graduate from LBCC this June, will travel to Huntsville, Alabama, on a NASA internship testing RS-25 engines for the Space Launch System.

It's projects like these that help inspire the next generation of scientists, Willmeth said.

Explained Swanson: "Our job here at the college is to ignite minds."

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