University of Pittsburgh Solar Eclipse Balloon Project


There will be a total Solar Eclipse on August 21st of 2017 that will extend across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. We are one of 55 teams who have received equipment and funding from NASA to observe this eclipse from a high altitude balloon. Livestream video from each of the balloons will be available on the internet giving everyone the opportunity to view the eclipse from the edge of space (approximately 100,000 feet). In addition, many teams, including ours, will conduct various experiments and observations with their balloon payloads.

Project Goals

In addition to the livestreaming video, our group has two primary goals.

  1. First, we want to record the eclipse with HD cameras pointing at the Sun. The balloon is a relatively stable platform, but it can rotate slowly during the flight. Therefore we will have 8 cameras arrayed in a circle and pointing in the general direction of the Sun, guaranteeing that the Sun will always be in view of at least one camera. After the eclipse, we plan to stitch the images from the 8 cameras into a panoramic video of the eclipse.

  2. Our second goal is to look for Shadow Bands which have been observed in previous total solar eclipses. They appear as ripples, changes in the light intensity, moving across the landscape in the moments just before and after totality, when the Moon completely covers the Sun. Photographic or video images of these shadow bands have been difficult to capture because the changes in light intensity are estimated to only be about one percent, but they look very much like the turbulence that you see around a candle flame.


Since October of 2016, the Pitt Shadow Bandits have completed seven balloon test flights. All of the test flights were launched from the Allegheny Observatory and the balloons drifted East due to the prevailing winds. There were two major goals for each test flight.

  1. Each flight gave our team the opportunity to practice preparing the payload, launching the balloon and recovering the payload so that we will be skilled at these tasks on the day of the eclipse.

  2. Each flight has given us an opportunity to test all of the components in our payload string as they are developed and built. This includes testing our cameras, light sensors, communications systems, balloon cut-down, parachute deployment and payload stabilization. The map on the right shows the path of each balloon that we launched. These flights are summarized below.
  • October 22nd, 2016        

    - Flight time was 117 minutes, maximum altitude of 103,000 feet, distance traveled was 53 miles.

  • November 13th, 2016      

    - Flight time was 120 minutes, maximum altitude of 103,000 feet, distance traveled was 33 miles.

  • January 7th, 2017          

    - Flight time was 86 minutes, maximum altitude of 86,000 feet, distance traveled was 74 miles.

  • February 18th, 2017        

    - Flight time was 119 minutes, maximum altitude of 71,000 feet, distance traveled was 67 miles.

  • April 1st, 2017              

    - Flight time was 113 minutes, maximum altitude of 95,000 feet, distance traveled was 66 miles.

  • April 28th, 2017            

    - Flight time was [?] minutes, maximum altitude of 33,000 feet, distance traveled was 48 miles.

  • June 20th, 2017             

    - Flight time was 94 minutes, maximum altitude of 90,000 feet, distance traveled was 64 miles.

  • July 14th, 2017              

    - Flight time was 110 minutes, maximum altitude of 96,000 feet, distance traveled was 37 miles.

Meet the team


Russell Clark

Russell Clark is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also the departmental advisor for all of the Physics and Astronomy majors. His background is in high energy physics, both accelerator and non-accelerator based experiments.

David Turnshek

David Turnshek is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, Director of Allegheny Observatory and former department chair. He studies galaxy formation, emphasizing the evolution of gas in galaxies. He also studies quasars, which are supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies; the black holes aresurrounded by brilliant disks of matter accreting into the black hole.

Sandhya Rao

Sandhya Rao is a Research Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. She studies quasars and the evolution of gas in the Universe. She also teaches introductory astronomy.


Carlos Vazquez

I am a junior engineering science major at Pitt, and I am very interested in embedded systems and networking.I have never flown high altitude balloons before getting involved in this project, but I can attest to the great exhilaration of launching, and especially recovering these beasts.

I have been involved in automating the flight prediction software to anticipate the landing sites of a large collection of balloons with varying parameters (cut-down altitude, amount of helium, etc.), designing the amplifier circuit for the light detector, and programming the camera multiplexer.

Sinjon Bartel

Sinjon Bartel is a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. He traveled to Montana last summer with team member Marshall Hartman to begin construction of all of the team's primary streaming systems. He has been involved with developing the team's groundstation as well as coordinating the control protocols of the on-board image and video capture systems.

Grace Chu

Grace Chu is a sophomore at Pitt studying physics and astronomy. She joined the Eclipse Balloon team in Fall of 2016. She is currently working on designing and optimizing light sensor arrays that can detect shadow bands from both the high-altitude balloon and the ground. Grace also designs and builds the payload containers used to send equipment up with the balloon.

Amiee Everett

Aimee Everett is a Sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Environmental Science and Nonfiction Writing. After joining the project in the Spring 2017 semester, she primarily worked with prediction software to gather data on High Altitude Balloon flight paths. With these predictions, the team was able to anticipate balloon landing locations during test flights and determine the best launch location for the eclipse-day flight.Aimee also assisted in the design and creation of the team's parachute basket system.

Janvi Madhani

Janvi Madhani is a junior in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. Her primary role on this project was to design and create photo-diode arrays capable of detecting shadow bands, both on the balloon and on the ground, during the eclipse.

She worked with Grace Chu and Carlos Vazquez to design a simulator in order to imitate the light patterns caused by shadow bands in the lab. The simulator was then used to test light sensors and optimize them for shadow band detection.Janvi also helps design and construct the various payloads containers that house the team's equipment in flight.


Eclipse Ballooning Project
Livestream video for the eclipse
University of South Hampton flight simulator
CUSF Landing Predictor
Youtube videos of test flights
Shadow Bandits Fact Sheet
Shadow Bandits Infographic
Pitt Shadow Bandits Facebook Page