The Charger Blog

Solar Eclipse Offers Unique Research and Learning Opportunities for Chargers

Whether they are headed to New York or Texas to launch weather balloons or sharing their passion for research on campus, teams of students and faculty members are excited for the solar eclipse. It promises to be an extraordinary opportunity to take their research to new heights and, even, to test a new weather balloon prototype.

April 4, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The researchers released launched 30 weather balloons, one per hour, while in Texas.
The researchers released launched 30 weather balloons, one per hour, while in Texas.

For Erik Parker ’24, this month’s eclipse promises to be particularly memorable. Not only will he have the opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse, he will be traveling with fellow researchers to witness it – and to learn as much as they can from it.

A view of the night sky from Texas.
A view of the night sky from Texas.

Parker is part of a team of Chargers who will be taking full advantage of the unique and important research opportunities the eclipse will offer. He will be viewing the eclipse from Rochester, NY, where he and his fellow researchers will launch 30 weather balloons, one every hour, before, during, and after the eclipse.

For Parker, an electrical and computer engineering major, this is not his first time traveling to conduct research during an eclipse. He visited Junction, Texas, this past fall with his classmates and faculty mentors, where they also launched 30 weather balloons during the annular solar eclipse. He describes it as a challenging and exhilarating experience, as he helped the group navigate challenges such as software problems. They were able to problem solve together to get everything working, and the trip was so successful that they’ll be doing similar work during this month’s total eclipse.

“When I first committed to the University for electrical and computer engineering, I never imagined that I would be launching weather balloons,” he said. “Through this project, I have learned a tremendous amount about the systems that make weather predictions possible, among the endless other things large balloons are used for. For me, it's all about the learning process of applying skills I already have and learning new ones from others.”

‘A ‘super line’ study’

Solar eclipses are indeed important events for researchers. Because the moon blocks the sun during what are typically daylight hours, the reduced solar radiation on the earth could cause local and widespread atmospheric changes. The University’s research teams endeavor to measure those possible changes, using weather balloons with sensors and monitors to measure ambient pressure, ozone level, moisture content, and temperature. They’ll be launching them from the ground and flying them up more than 100,000 feet.

The researchers prepare a balloon for launch.
The researchers prepare a balloon for launch.

Parker is one of nearly a dozen students who will be traveling to study the eclipse. He and his teammates in New York will be conducting research that promises to generate important data on the ambient weather conditions during the eclipse, including any possible atmospheric gravity wave caused by the eclipse.

John Kelley, an associate lab supervisor, will lead the team of students in Rochester, where they will collaborate with researchers at SUNY Brockport. Their work is part of a “super line” study, which also includes researchers at SUNY Oswego and SUNY Albany, as the launch locations of the three teams will be close to a line along the totality path of the eclipse.

Chong Qiu, Ph. D., associate professor of chemistry and one of the students’ mentors, notes that this “super line” study could offer a unique geographic scale in the data sets when compared to previous studies. He’s excited about what the researchers could learn from studying the eclipse, as well as the opportunities this work has been creating for students.

“The team members have gone through a series of theoretical and hands-on training, covering a broad collection of areas, including physics, chemistry, meteorology, engineering, and earth sciences,” explains Dr. Qiu. “They also had the opportunity to practice their learning in real-world settings and have learned more within the non-ideal conditions, such as planning ahead, trouble-shooting on the spot, and problem solving with limited resources and time.”

Texas, New York, and Connecticut

The researchers have been charging up for the eclipse, especially since returning from spring break. They’re still reviewing data from the first trip to Texas, and they’ve been conducting practice balloon launches to make sure they and their equipment are ready to go.

A group of Chargers traveled to Texas to conduct research during an eclipse this fall.
A group of Chargers traveled to Texas to conduct research during an eclipse this fall.

Dr. Qiu will be returning to Texas during the eclipse, where he’ll be leading a team of students to continue their research. They will be monitoring the ozone level with a device carried by a new prototype of an altitude-controlled weather balloon. It was developed by a multi-disciplinary team of five mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering students under the mentorship of Joseph Levert, Ph.D., an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. They hope to determine the field performances of the new weather balloon and to monitor any ozone changes during the eclipse.

A team will also be on campus during the eclipse, where they will offer educational activities and demonstrations to their fellow Chargers. Nathan Seifert, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry, is hosting an event during which he will demonstrate weather ballooning. They will collaborate with the University’s Astronomy Club, which will offer observation activities with telescopes. Although Connecticut is not in the total eclipse path, Dr. Qiu says Chargers can still expect to see something remarkable.

“Within the New Haven area, we are expecting to see a partial solar eclipse of up to 90 percent cover,” he said.

‘The work we put in is well worth it’

For Grace Teall ’24 M.S., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in chemistry, being a part of this research has been exciting and rewarding. She’s looking forward to studying a second eclipse during her final academic year as a Charger.

“This opportunity has been such a great experience,” she said. “I have learned so much about how weather data are collected and recorded. This has provided a great opportunity to get hands-on experience on how to see how weather data such as temperature, air pressure, and wind patterns are collected at much higher altitudes in the atmosphere. I cannot wait to see the results of the data we collect to see how the eclipse might affect these various parameters.”

Faculty and students get the balloon ready to go.
Faculty and students get the balloon ready to go.

The University has collaborated with researchers and teams at myriad universities, including Stanford University and St. Edward’s University. They’ve also received support from organizations such as the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. Dr. Qiu says the seed research award he received from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium in 2022 was particularly impactful to this work.

“My experience so far is that it takes a long time and a lot of forward thinking to build a program at its current level,” he said. “In the end, all the student participants have been very happy with their experience, so I think all the work we put in is well worth it!”

‘Passion for research’

This month’s eclipse will be the last total solar eclipse that will be observable within the continental U.S. until 2045. For Kiefer Neumann ’23, ’24 M.S., getting to study two eclipses under the mentorship of Dr. Qiu has not only been fascinating, it has also been a cornerstone of his research as a candidate in the University’s graduate program in mechanical engineering.

“During my trip to Texas in the fall for my graduate thesis, I collected ozone data via high-altitude weather balloons to study the impact to solar eclipses on ozone concentration,” explains Neumann, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University. “I have been working with Dr. Qiu for almost two years, and it has been an invaluable experience. His determination and passion for research has taught me lessons in project management and problem solving.”

Kiefer Neumann ’23, ’24 M.S. (front) and his fellow researchers unpack their gear.
Kiefer Neumann ’23, ’24 M.S. (front) and his fellow researchers unpack their gear.

For Parker, the electrical and computer engineering major, the challenges he faced when preparing to launch the weather balloons in Texas this fall were eclipsed by the rewarding opportunity he had to be a part of the research. He says it helped him to build his confidence as well as his teamwork and problem solving skills. His involvement in the project has prepared him for his next mission in New York. He can’t wait to see all that the teams are sure to learn and accomplish together as they take their research to new heights.

“Since I have the experience from going on the Texas trip, my focus has not been on launching traditional weather balloons,” he explains. “I have been able to provide some assistance for the capstone team going to Texas in regard to the electronics for their vent system. I've familiarized myself with the various systems that make the project possible so problem solving can be as efficient as possible. I anticipate everything will go smoothly for both the Rochester and Texas teams, but I will be ready to jump to action in the event that either team has trouble.”