campus news

SEDS balloon camera survives dip in Seneca Lake to provide eclipse images

View of the eclipse from the SEDS weather balloon.

A view from the SEDS balloon camera. The orb at top left is the sun in totality, the moon covering it completely. It’s still bright, says SEDS member Nick McNally, an aerospace engineering graduate student, because of the sun’s corona. “The sun in totality is as bright as a full moon,” he says


Published April 12, 2024

“It worked when we needed it to. It did its job great. I mean, we dropped it in a lake. ”
Nick McNally, aerospace engineering graduate student and member
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space

As the five members of UB’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space drove to Seneca Lake Tuesday morning — riding in the Patel family’s Nissan Rogue with the peeling license plates — they knew scientific experiments carried no guarantees.

The group formed the nucleus of those launching the SEDS weather balloon before a cheering crowd at Monday’s total eclipse watch event along Lee Road on the North Campus.

The weather balloon carried a Go-Pro camera and the SEDS students’ ambitious hopes of scoring signature shots of the total eclipse unobstructed by the clouds that moved in and out of the sun’s path Monday afternoon.

Krish Patel, driver and owner of the Rogue; Nick McNally, the graduate student who carried the balloon and camera up the hill and then released the balloon about 3 p.m. in front of a cheering crowd; and the other three students on the two-hour trip understood they might never see their camera again.

Their spirits rose when they got there. The GPS system attached to the weather balloon, aiming for 70,000 feet, indicated the camera had been drifting for hours in the water toward the east shore after landing well into Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. 

“We had binoculars,” says Patel, a senior physics student who was on the team of those preparing the balloon release Monday afternoon.

“We specifically saw a note tied to the balloon, and we were all very excited. We were all urgently trying to get down there where we saw the balloon. A boat was going by, and we saw the balloon floating on the top of the water, and we were nervous about the boat going over the weather balloon. We were like, ‘Uh oh.’”

It was SEDS’ day, in more ways than one. The balloon escaped the boat. A kind woman named Jill, whose backyard coincided with the shoreline nearest to the balloon, offered to let the students use her kayak. And when McNally paddled out about 100 yards, he was the first to discover more good news.

Within 20 minutes he was headed back to shore with a thumbs-up sign, and all intact pieces of the balloon, parachute and, most importantly, the GoPro camera.

The group returned the kayak, got back into the car, stopped for Mexican food in Geneva and topped it off with ice cream from Lake Effect on Hertel Avenue — all conversation dominated by concern that the water had “fried” all the images.

SEDS had only had the camera a few days, and the students had to disassemble the camera’s waterproof mechanism to connect a larger battery source for the extended flight time. So the flight over the Finger Lakes included serious risks.

But this was SEDS’ day, in more ways than one. Understandably, some water had gotten inside while the camera floated all night in Seneca Lake. The SEDS crew spent Tuesday treating it like a cellphone that had been dropped in a swimming pool, using uncooked rice and a vacuum chamber to soak up as much of the water as possible.

McNally went home and retrieved a supply of desiccant gel bags he had for some reason put aside. “I was saving them for my 3D printer,” McNally explains. “Sometimes you just keep stuff when you’re not thinking about it.

“We wanted to be very careful because we weren’t going to be able to get another shot at this.”

It worked. There were some glitches; the revolving 360-degree function didn’t work exactly as hoped. But within the almost two hours of video are numerous gems.

“Given all we went through to find it,” McNally says, “I’ll take it.”

And as promised, SEDS posted the almost two-hour video on YouTube last night. Some moments:

  • At 31:43, the clear orb at top left is the sun in totality, the moon covering it completely. It’s still bright, McNally says, because of the sun’s corona. “The sun in totality is as bright as a full moon,” he says. “It you look very closely, you can see the middle of the sun is black and has a kind of doughnut shape.”

Under the sun, in a very faint white dot, is another planet. McNally thinks it’s either Jupiter or Venus.

  • Throughout the video are sharp images of the horizon of the earth, all above the clouds. The deep blue parts are the earth’s atmosphere with its higher oxygen content. Above it is pitch black, dark because of the very small element of what passes for air on earth.
  • At 1:19:03 is a clear shot of the unblocked, uneclipsed sun.
  • At 1:41:25 the balloon “pops” and sends the camera reeling. The camera catches the wild movement showing a full revolution of the scene.

A day after returning from Seneca Lake, the camera no longer works.

“It worked when we needed it to,” says McNally. “It did its job great. I mean, we dropped it in a lake.”