It was Dr. Ross Carroll's first time to see a total solar eclipse. Beforehand, the Associated Professor of Physics at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro was told that the experience would be "indescribable."
He and his colleague, Professor of Science Education Dr. Tillman Kennon, took a group of students and spectators to a high school in Fulton, Missouri to catch the total solar eclipse on August 21. The professors have also been working on launching a balloon carrying various instruments and cameras during the eclipse. It was a part of a nationwide experiment for NASA.
Carroll said the primary goal was to spark interest in the phenomenon using the live video stream. "We've got lots of really good footage from that," he said. "We're still processing through many gigabytes worth of videos and still images."
They also gathered data using the instruments for NASA. "We're looking at temperature, [air] pressure, humidity, light levels--you name it," Carroll said.
Since 2006, the team has been preparing for the event. While they expected some issues, Carroll said they did encounter other issues that were unexpected. He said about 10 minutes before totality struck, their live stream video was interrupted by a power outage at the high school.
“We successfully live streamed up to about 40 thousand feet,” Carroll said, “and then the Wi-Fi cut out on us.” He said a motor in the high school began smoking. The smoke tripped the fire alarm which shut off their power supply.
They also encountered a slight issue with the balloon. “We let go of the balloon, right as we expected," Carroll said, "then the winds kicked up and it ended up throwing our balloon about 10 miles farther than we expected.” Eventually, they recovered the balloon and the camera. The balloon hung in a tree, while the camera ended up in a near-by creek, which Carroll thought was funny.
“We were always joking that it's either going to land in a tree or water," Carroll said, "and we got both out of that.”
Despite those minor technical and natural difficulties, Carroll considered the experiment a success. He said he was extremely proud of his students for how they took charge of the project.
“It’s one of those proud moments of a professor,” Carroll said. “Just watching my students kinda on auto-pilot; being the leaders we’re trying to train them to be.”
He also called it a momentous occasion for the two founders of the NASA ballooning project in Arkansas, Dr. Kennon and Ed Roberts, a high school physical science teacher in Pottsville, AR.
“This was their 50th balloon launch which was quite an accomplishment,” he said.
Another total eclipse is expected to come really close to Jonesboro on April 8, 2024. Carroll said Jonesboro will experience totality for about 2 minutes and 30 seconds. He said he’s looking forward to it.
“I’m already planning on 2024,” he said. “Whether NASA’s running the program or not, I’m already planning.”
So, now that Carroll has seen his first total eclipse, he confirmed that the experience was indeed “indescribable”.
“It’s incredible. I can’t get it out of my mind, frankly” said Carroll. “It’s nothing like looking at pictures of it. To be there it’s otherworldly.”