When the moon passes in front of the sun Monday, leaving Casper in shadow, many residents and most of the 35,000 people who are expected to visit the city will have their eyes locked on the sky, where a rare celestial event – a total solar eclipse – will be taking place.
But Bryan Tobias hopes to be looking down.
The University of Texas at San Antonio doctoral student won’t be doing it with his own eyes. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be in a quiet spot on Casper Mountain, piloting a drone about 2,000 feet above his head, capturing footage of the darkened ground as the moon’s shadow races across Casper.
“You’ll see millions of photos of the eclipse, all looking up,” he said. “So I have decided I want to be looking down.”
His drone will be recording video, but not of the eclipse itself. Tobias, one of several people who will be conducting research in Casper during the eclipse, is interested in the lunar umbra – the shadow the moon will cast across the city and region in the moment that totality begins.
That same day, a team at Casper College is planning to launch a weather balloon to livestream the eclipse, while another group of researchers will be studying how the moon’s shadow compares to those of clouds and how that relates to long-term climate patterns. The eclipse offers a rare opportunity to witness a solar spectacle and do some science all at once.
Tobias hopes to capture 15 to 20 minutes of the umbral shadow as it races across the Earth at about 2,200 mph. It will fall over Casper from the north-northwest just before totality – when the moon moves into place to completely cover the sun. Tobias hopes to track it as it approaches and then pivot his drone so that it can capture footage of the shadow continuing its path away from Casper, toward Nebraska, then Missouri and ultimately South Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s going to get dark as (the moon shadow) is coming across the terrain,” he said. “There will be a 30- to 40-mile swath of darkness.”
He notes that people in the 70-mile path of totality will be within sight of both other planets and daylight, though the skies above them will dim.
Tobias is working on his Ph.D in astrophysics. He has researched this project since January, but he still has a few challenges to work through: His drone has a battery life of about 28 minutes, so he has to ration his time. It can fly to 1,700 feet above the launch site, so he wants to be as high up as he possibly can. And he has to think about how he’ll land it safely, so he’s looking for a secluded area.
Ultimately, the viewing perspective will “be like on the Empire State Building, but in Casper,” he said.
Tobias plans to be on the mountain, though he’s still looking for the perfect spot. He planned to scout locations while he was in town for AstroCon 2017, which is bringing hundreds of amateur astronomers to the Parkway Plaza and to Casper College for a national conference that will end Saturday, two days before the eclipse.
The rare celestial event has energized attendance at the convention. Most years, Tobias said, numbers hover around 200. This year, at least 800 astronomers are expected to descend on Casper. In fact, organizers had to cap registration so the event wouldn’t be overcrowded.
Most of those stargazers, of course, plan to stick around for the eclipse. But they’ll be busy in the days leading up to it, attending lectures and social events – one evening meal for convention-goers is called the Star BQ – and taking in Casper and Wyoming.
But on the day of the eclipse, Tobias says, it won’t matter exactly where they are. As long as skies are clear, you can be “smack dab in the middle of downtown” or anywhere else in the path of totality and have an unparalleled view of a rare event.
“It’ll be quite the spectacle,” he said.
Clouds and the weather
While Tobias is somewhere on Casper Mountain, scanning the ground for the moon’s approaching shadow, a group of researchers will be on the roof of the Gertrude Krampert Theatre on the Casper College campus.
Jay Herman and his team, which includes two Casper College faculty members, don’t actually need to be there. Their equipment – two spectrometers and a radiometer set up on campus, plus a satellite orbiting a million miles from Earth – will take all the measurements they need.
But he and his companions wouldn’t miss it.
This eclipse is a chance for them to test the way they’ve been calculating how the sun’s radiation is affected by clouds.
Scientists study how clouds impact the amount of radiation that falls to Earth from the sun. Clouds create a shadow on Earth, just like the moon will do during this solar eclipse. They reflect light back to space and prevent light from reaching the surface of the planet and the lower atmosphere. In short, they modify the sun’s heating effects.
“The moon is a very controlled, well-known object as compared to clouds, so we’re going to use the moon to test the calculation method, and then it will be applied to clouds,” said Herman, who works at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Before the eclipse, the two spectrometers will measure trace gases such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Once the eclipse starts, one will measure how the light decreases as the moon gradually blocks the sun. The other will measure scattered radiation from the sun. The radiometer, meanwhile, measures the light coming from all directions.
And up in space, there is a remote participant. The DSCOVR EPIC is a satellite that has been collecting data since June 2015 and will be called into service. The acronyms stand for Deep Space Climate Observatory and Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera.
Because of where it’s positioned, the satellite has an uninterrupted view of the illuminated side of our home planet and what happens when the moon’s shadow crosses it.
“It sees the whole sunlit disc of the Earth,” Herman said.
Herman also is looking forward to the spectacle itself. This won’t be his first eclipse — he saw one decades ago — but he’s eagerly anticipating the experience.
“Based on what I saw the first time, I sure want to see it again,” he said.
Balloon in the sky
About an hour before totality – maybe a little less – Megan Graham and the members of the robotics club at Casper College will be watching the sky as their helium-filled weather balloon ascends into the darkening heavens.
At that point, the gray blob will be about 8 feet in diameter and heading toward the stratosphere, which starts at about 60,000 feet above Earth. As it rises, Graham said, the air pressure will ease, and the balloon will expand until it reaches about 35 feet in diameter, hovering in the blackness of space. Within half an hour, it will have cleared the level of the sky that airplanes soar through.
The robotics team hopes to send it 85,000 feet in the air at totality, but it may go as high as 100,000. By that time, it will be far out of sight and at the mercy of space weather.
“We’re at the whim of the winds,” said Graham, an electronics technology and robotics technology instructor at the college.
If all goes well, the team on the ground will see a clear and unbroken video stream of the eclipse – the first time such an attempt has been made.
But they won’t be the only ones. The livestream, which the Casper College team and dozens of others across the country will contribute to, will be available to anyone on Earth with the ability to navigate to eclipsestream.live. Even people who live thousands of miles from the path of totality will be able to marvel at the eclipse as if they were directly in the line that spans the continental United States from coast to coast.
Many details of the launch have yet to be decided. The team will base its ground station – which includes a satellite dish to track the balloon – at Casper College. They might launch from there, too. But they might also have to start farther north. The exact launch site and time will be chosen closer to the day of the eclipse, based on the weather forecast.
The balloon will be carrying a few payloads. One is a computer the size of a credit card, called a Raspberry Pi. It will control the video feed.
The second payload contains three Raspberry Pis and three cameras that will capture still images of the eclipse. The third is a controller that will measure temperature, light, humidity and acceleration.
The final one is strips of bacteria, which NASA is sending up to see how they react in the stratosphere.
The strips might sound like stowaways, but it’s no free ride. The Casper College team’s project, along with 43 others at schools, college and universities from Oregon to South Carolina, is funded by the NASA Space Grant Consortium. The other teams in Wyoming will be located in Riverton and near Glendo.
The space agency is attempting the first livestream of an eclipse and has enlisted the students around the country to be part of the effort.
The Casper College team is composed of eight students studying computer science, engineering, robotics and electronics. They’re also being mentored by two doctoral students at the University of Wyoming. For this project, the group will be known as the WY Space Cowboys.
The work hasn’t come without hiccups. The team has had to retrieve its balloon from places as far as Midwest and Medicine Bow. Once, a parachute failed to fully deploy, and the balloon crashed into the ground from 100,000 feet.
“That was a hard landing,” Graham acknowledged – but she also noted that the team didn’t lose much because the payload was packed very securely.
“We’re all learning new tricks and new things,” she said. “Every time you launch, there’s something different.”