Local photographer gets shot of eclipse's shadow from stratospheric balloon
Last week's solar eclipse was one for the ages, with gorgeous photos and videos of the sun getting blocked by the moon making the rounds.
But Liem Bahneman took a different approach -- what would the eclipse look like from high above the Oregon desert? To find out, he got a high altitude balloon, some cameras, a GPS tracker and a toddler's food bowl (what?) and planned one epic journey.
He found a spot to stay in Bend, Oregon, bought some cheap $5 cameras from Goodwill, A GoPro, a satellite GPS tracker and a 360 degree camera. But the GPS had a unique requirement -- it had to lie flat facing the satellite or it wouldn't work. But how would he be able to track where is balloon landed if it crash landed and the GPS ended up on its side?
Easy -- with an $8 toddler "gyro" bowl, designed to keep its contents in the bowl no matter if a finicky toddler tosses it around. It would keep the GPS tracker upright. Voila, problem solved.
"A very low tech solution to a high tech problem," Bahneman said.
But then on launch day, another low tech problem: Bahneman filled the balloon first, attached it to his truck and then hooked up the payload for launch. As the eclipse time approached it was time to set the balloon free for its skyward journey!
"I hooked up the payload to the balloon and found that my calculation for helium were WAY off. The balloon just sat there! PANIC," he said.
Luckily there was a little more helium left in the tank and it was just enough to get it off the ground, albeit 20 minutes late.
"So I wouldn’t be getting as high as I would have hoped for totality," he s aid.
But it was high enough to get a spectacular view of the eclipse as it passed! Watch the shadows drift across the Oregon desert:
Getting the video off the camera? Now that was another challenge. The GPS only works below 20,000 feet, so Bahneman had to wait until the balloon popped and came back to earth before he'd know where to go looking for it.
"This was the worst part of the project, the waiting," he said. "I wouldn’t go as far as to say it has the same gravity as waiting for an Apollo capsule to return from comms blackout, but for me it almost felt that way!"
"It was not far from where the trajectory had calculated it would be and best of all, it was near a tangle of forest service roads!" he said -- about 5 miles overshooting their original targeted landing site due to the required extra helium.
It took 90 minutes driving back forest roads and dodging the traffic from the massive exodus of eclipse-viewers before they found their balloon. Or at least, where it was supposed to be.
"We had to walk about 300 feet from the last driveable portion to the GPS coordinates. We arrived at the site, which was moderately forested with fall ponderosa pines. We couldn’t find the payload anywhere," he said.
Then, it was finally spotted -- tangled 50 feet up a pine tree .They spent about an hour trying to pull it down with rocks and paracord, with no luck. But then a lucky bounce -- apparently the balloon got tangled with the parachute cords so the payload screamed back to the ground instead of gently floating. The impact knock two of the cameras off the mount. They were found on the ground and Bahneman had his shots.
The 360 degree camera died about 20 minutes before the eclipse:
But the GoPro had enough battery to survive the entire eclipse!
He's working on getting even more footage. An arborist in Bend said he'd go retrieve Bahneman's balloon and are sending back the other cameras to him.
"At this point, those cameras would be bonus footage," he said.
Fresh off this success, Bahneman is ready to try again in seven years.
"All in all, I consider this mission a success, particularly for my first stratospheric balloon launch," he said. "Many lessons were learned and I can’t wait to do it again in Texas in 2024."