Watching Friday’s Eclipse—From the Stratosphere

A Spanish company plans to capture first-of-its-kind video of the March 20 eclipse.

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How many millions of earthlings have looked forward to the rare experience of a solar eclipse, only to have their hopes dashed by a rainy day? The stratospheric ballooning company Zero2infinity has a surprising solution—watch the next solar eclipse from above the clouds.

 The Spanish company, which currently specializes in using balloons to test space technologies in the stratosphere, plans to launch a payload of tiny cameras to capture this Friday’s total solar eclipse, visible from the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Footage from the six cameras—each facing a different direction—will be stitched together after the flight, creating a “spherical video” of the eclipse viewed from the edge of space. Once the footage is combined, it will be uploaded to the web to create an interactive virtual experience for anyone in the world with a decent internet connection and a computer, tablet or smart phone.

If that seems hard to visualize, check out Zero2infinity’s first spherical video from the stratosphere.

Spherical video isn’t a new concept—but according to Zero2infinity spokesperson Annelie Schoenmaker, no one had thought of using the technique to “take” viewers to the stratosphere until now. “You have the feeling you’re in the middle of it,” she says. “You get a very special impression, I think.”

At the balloon’s peak altitude of around 100,000 feet, the cameras will capture a view very much like that seen from space. The sky will look black and the curvature of the earth will be clearly discernable. Most importantly, the video will show something rarely witnessed by humans, or even cameras—the shadow of the moon passing across the surface of the earth, comparatively small but encompassing entire mountain ranges, coastlines, and cities.

A joint stratospheric balloon team from Australia and Bulgaria captured this video of the 2012 solar eclipse in Australia, from an altitude of about 82,000 feet. The image clearly shows the moon’s shadow stretching off to the horizon, but due to the slow spinning of the camera beneath the balloon, it’s hard to take in the view without getting a bit seasick. Zero2infinity’s spherical video will bypass that problem altogether, says Schoenmaker, giving viewers the ability to “look around” at whatever they like.

To add to the drama of the occasion, this week’s eclipse is happening on the vernal equinox, and it’s only visible from the vicinity of the North Pole. Zero2infinity will have to launch the balloon from somewhere in the Svalbard archipelago, about 600 miles north of mainland Norway, which lies dead center in the path of the eclipse.

“The setting is very unreal,” says Schoenmaker. “It’s the North Pole, so there’s a lot of snow. All of a sudden it gets completely dark.” She notes that Svalbard, which lies well above the Arctic Circle, will just be emerging from a long, sun-starved winter when the islands are once again (temporarily) shrouded in darkness. The Zero2infinity team are keeping their fingers crossed that the aurora borealis will further decorate the scene, though of course they don’t shine on cue.

The flight is part educational demonstration, part PR campaign for Zero2infinity’s ultimate goal of flying tourists to the stratosphere, and part can we pull it off? adventure. It won’t be easy. Balloon flight is extremely dependent on weather, and potential launch windows often span days. Friday’s launch will have to be timed precisely to catch the eclipse, which will only last a couple of hours. Given that the timing can’t change, says Schoenmaker, the variable is where the balloon will be released. The team will have to read the weather first thing on Friday morning, calculate an ideal flight path to stay within the moon’s shadow, then skedaddle to the optimal launch site somewhere in Svalbard.

Then there’s the problem of recovering the payload, and the footage, after it parachutes back to earth. It’s cub season for polar bears, and the locals have warned the team not to get too close. Svalbard’s relatively large area and rugged mountain terrain will almost certainly mean a costly helicopter rental. And that’s if the payload comes down on land—otherwise a boat may be needed to get it back. Luckily, it floats.

They won’t know until the flight is under way what measures may be required for retrieval, so the team is currently raising money via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to make sure any contingency is covered. Just in case the flight isn’t successful, they’ll also be launching a balloon from their base in Spain to capture the partial eclipse visible from there.

Zero2infinity notes on their Indiegogo page that it’s especially important to capture the beauty of this polar eclipse, since the ice caps that should be visible from the balloon’s peak altitude are dwindling daily. “It’s just an event that happens very rarely,” says Schoenmaker, “and next time it happens it will look completely different.”

If Zero2infinity’s polar eclipse flight is successful, it will be encouraging news for the lengthily-named National Network of Total Solar Eclipse High-Altitude Balloon Flights. The coalition of balloonists and scientists, spanning nearly all 50 American states, plans to capture the August 2017 total solar eclipse from dozens of stratospheric balloons, launched in succession as the moon’s shadow creeps across the country.

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