As the moon moved between the earth and the sun over Paducah, Ky., on Aug. 21, University of Hartford student Mark Markiewicz ’18 was one of the only people not looking at the sky. The mechanical engineering major in the University's College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture (CETA) was furiously typing on a laptop, trying to communicate with satellites controlling NASA’s livestream of the total solar eclipse. Mark, mechanical engineering major Stefan Keilich ’18, and their professors had just launched a balloon carrying a camera that was supposed to contribute images to the stream. Unfortunately, the camera was not cooperating.
“It’s not working,” Mark exclaimed as thousands of people focused on the disappearing sun at the watch party at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. “What is going on?”
"Just stop for a minute," Stefan calmly told his friend. “You have to see the eclipse.”
The 2017 total solar eclipse was the reason they worked for months with the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, drove more than a thousand miles to Kentucky, and spent hours assembling equipment in the middle of a Kentucky field in 100-degree heat. As the air turned cooler and the sky went dark, Mark finally looked up at the black circle surrounded by a glowing ring of light.
“Oh my God,” Mark yelled! “This is the single greatest thing I have ever seen to date!”
“Look at that ring of light! It’s beautiful,” Stefan exclaimed.
Mark and Stefan could not contain their excitement over seeing this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. For these two friends, who grew up together in Windsor, Conn. and share a love of space, the moment was a dream come true. But then it was back to work. Fortunately, they were able to fix the camera and it beamed images onto NASA's website for people around the world to enjoy.
CETA faculty train their students to solve problems. That training proved invaluable on this day. From rolls and rolls of duct tape to a fuse yanked from a pickup truck, Mark and Stefan used whatever they could find to make their task of launching a balloon carrying a camera to broadcast the eclipse a success.
Their first launch attempt failed when the payload disconnected and crashed to the ground, but they didn’t give up. Students and professors immediately sprinted across the field to grab more helium for a second attempt. Students from Bluegrass Community and Technical College who also were part of the onsite team jumped in to help get the second balloon ready for launch. With the pressure of a large crowd watching their every move and time running out they double and triple checked all systems and did a second lift-off. This eight-foot-tall helium balloon and its payload drifted flawlessly toward the sky on its way to 80,000 feet.
“It was so exciting for the students,” said University of Hartford Professor Hisham Alnajjar, director of the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium who was on-site with the team. “When it finally went up, and then when we got the signal, wow. It was all worth it.”
The NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, with UHart as its lead institution, is an affiliate of a federal grant, internship, and scholarship program funded as part of NASA's Office of Education designed to broaden the participation of universities and individuals in aerospace science, engineering, and technology. Partners in this eclipse project included the University of Bridgeport, Discovery Museum and Planetarium, and Fairchild Wheeler Interdisctrict Multi-Magnet High School.