MACON — A team from Mercer University School of Engineering has been selected to participate in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project (NEBP), which will immerse students in a NASA mission to collect and analyze data through stratospheric ballooning during upcoming annular and total solar eclipses.
Dr. Anthony Choi, professor of engineering, and Dr. Hunmin Kim, assistant professor of engineering, have been awarded $20,000 from the NEBP, which is funded by the NASA Science Mission Directorate Science Activation program and the NASA Space Grant Network. They also received $25,000 from the Georgia Space Grant Consortium for the project.
NEBP teams across the county will conduct scientific field campaigns during the Oct. 14 annular solar eclipse and the April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse. In an annular solar eclipse, the sun’s outer edges can be seen as a bright ring around the moon, whereas in a total solar eclipse, the moon completely blocks the face of the sun. The projects involve flying helium-filled balloons carrying science and engineering payloads, such as meteorological instruments, still and video cameras, and space technology proof-of-concept hardware.
“Participating in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project provides our students with a unique opportunity to engage in a NASA mission and apply their STEM skills to real-world projects,” Dr. Kim said. “Students will gain hands-on experience with balloon flight and data collection, as well as develop critical skills in teamwork, problem-solving and communication. We are excited to be a part of these initiatives and look forward to seeing the impact they will have on our students and the wider community.”
Goals of the Mercer project include increasing reliability of the balloon’s tracking mechanism; creating redundancies for the tracking and positioning system, communication system, and cutdown mechanism; accurately tracking and positioning the system during landing; simplifying communications connections for the experimental payload; and increasing bandwidth for communications.
Student participants will complete at least 40 hours of virtual training and 80 hours of hands-on training, including a tethered balloon launch, which will allow students to prepare, fill and launch under real-world conditions in a real-time scenario.
NASA began providing grants to Dr. Choi in 2010 with a two-pronged goal of outreach — especially to K-12 students — as well as the capability to conduct research and build systems toward NASA’s goals.
This work originated with a project by Engineering Honors Program students James McNichols and Spencer Penley, who as freshmen began investigating mechanisms for delivering experiments into space. Under the advisement of Dr. Choi and with funding from NASA, these two students carried the project into their senior year and won several awards, including one from the American Society for Engineering Education.
In 2017, Dr. Choi led a team of 23 students in a partnership with NASA to launch a high-altitude balloon from Sunset, South Carolina, to live stream video and collect experimental data from near space of the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in 38 years.
That project jump-started the High-Altitude Research Platform (HARP) initiative at Mercer, which develops a low-cost medium for K-12 schools and other universities to gain access to near space for experimentation and data collection. The goal is for students to look at space as something they can easily gain access to, touch and feel.
“The 2017 total solar eclipse was an amazing and rewarding experience for students. They were able to experience a rare event and enabled others to share in the experience by live streaming video of the eclipse from a high-altitude balloon payload,” Dr. Choi said. “This experience catalyzed many of the student participants to further their research experience in developing HARP. My hope is that the upcoming experience will do the same for our current students.”
About the School of Engineering
Mercer University’s School of Engineering, founded in 1985, offers innovative and academically challenging programs that provide students with a comprehensive education, featuring a solid foundation in mathematics and sciences, a core engineering curriculum, a range of courses in engineering specialties and a strong emphasis on communication technologies. The School is consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top three master’s-degree-level engineering schools in the Southeast. Known for its breadth of instruction in its undergraduate program and its five-year joint bachelor’s and master’s degree program, the School combines technical education with hands-on laboratory experience. Mercer engineers can look forward to joining fellow alumni in companies such as Robins Air Force Base, Mercer Engineering Research Center, Northrop Grumman, Georgia Power, Manhattan Associates and Gulfstream Aerospace. For more information, visit engineering.mercer.edu.
About Mercer University
Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. With approximately 9,000 students enrolled in 12 schools and colleges, on major campuses in Macon and Atlanta; medical school sites in Macon, Savannah and Columbus; and at regional academic centers in Henry and Douglas counties, Mercer is ranked among the top tier of national research universities by U.S. News & World Report. The Mercer Health Sciences Center includes the University’s School of Medicine and Colleges of Nursing, Health Professions and Pharmacy. Mercer is affiliated with five teaching hospitals — Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Center in Macon; Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis-Emory Healthcare in Columbus. The University also has an educational partnership with Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. It operates an academic press and a performing arts center in Macon and an engineering research center in Warner Robins. Mercer Medicine, the clinical faculty practice of the School of Medicine, is based in Macon and operates additional clinics in Sumter, Peach, Clay, Putnam and Harris counties. Mercer is one of only 293 institutions nationwide to shelter a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society; one of eight institutions to hold membership in the Georgia Research Alliance; and the only private university in Georgia to field an NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit mercer.edu.