Out of This World

You would think that once they sent a high-altitude balloon to 80,000 feet to livestream a solar eclipse for the first time, a Gannon research team would have completely put its story of scientific discovery in the books.

But what happened after the balloon had gathered its data was almost as mind-boggling as the as the historic, once-in-a-lifetime research itself.


What Goes Up. . .

To recap, a Gannon University team was one of 52 teams from colleges and universities nationwide chosen for a NASA-funded project to conduct balloon flights to near space from about 25 locations across the path of the total eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21. 

The team, led by Wookwon Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Nick Conklin, Ph.D., associate professor of physics, designed and operated a payload of instruments to record the eclipse.

Though the Gannon payload took longer than expected to ascend to its final altitude, it was one of only seven of the 52 that were still returning a signal 50 minutes after launch. The payload captured spectacular images from the edge of outer space, and carried a small experiment designed to test whether bacteria could survive conditions that simulated those on Mars.


. . . Must Come Down

In order to retrieve the experiment and the payload, three tracking devices were placed on board, but none returned a signal that could be detected by the Gannon ground station near Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

“During the setup process, I think we touched some of the wires that are sensitive to making some systems not function properly,” Lee said. Another complication in the rural launch area was the lack of coverage of the cellular networks that the tracking systems depended on.

Perplexed, Lee and his team calculated where the payload might have returned to earth, but no one reported seeing it. They left to return to Erie for the beginning of the semester.

Payload in Tree

Out of the Blue

Then, three days later, one of the cellphones that was used as a backup tracking device miraculously awakened and sent a ping that team member Tenger Batjargal received at the Zurn Science Center. The payload had been found.

Using GPS data and Google Maps, the team pinpointed the payload’s location at 205 Dixie Dr., in Hopkinsville. A police officer was dispatched, but the payload could not be seen–until someone looked up and saw the bright red-orange parachute that marked its location in a treetop.

A tree service recovered the lightweight but rugged Styrofoam box and the parachute, which was sent via overnight shipping to Erie, safe at home.

That journey of 613 miles from Hopkinsville to Erie was a good deal longer than the 160,000 feet the payload traveled on Aug. 21. Still, the Gannon team made its contribution to scientific history–and got a pretty fantastic story of discovery in the bargain.

Making History

John Magnus

John Mangus ’56 visited campus to speak to current students about his experience and work with NASA. 

It turns out that August’s historic research project wasn’t the first encounter with a solar eclipse by Gannon scientists.

In 1965, John Mangus ’56 was part of a team that observed the solar eclipse from a modified commercial airliner over the South Pacific.

“Early in my career at [NASA’s] Goddard Space Flight Center, I was asked to propose an instrument to observe the upcoming solar eclipse where a telescope was modified to transmit data from the inferred spectrum,” Mangus said.

Windows made of arsenic trisulfide were installed at a 45-degree angle to the plane of the wings and the airplane took off from the big island of Hawaii headed to Tahiti in the path of totality.


“An eclipse is an amazing thing to witness and on that mission, because we flew well above the clouds, we could see the length of the corona,” Mangus remembered. “In the darkness of totality, we could also see Jupiter and one of its Galilean moons, which was thrilling.” He noted that Louis Haughney ’48, who worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center, was also part of the project team.

Mangus served as a senior scientist at NASA for 32 years during which time he focused primarily on instrumentation for solar physics, astronomical and cosmological missions. At 83 years of age and retired from NASA since 1994, he is still consulting on some of the space agency’s most astounding projects.

Mangus is currently part of the project team for the James Webb Space Telescope that, when launched next year, will make observations of electromagnetic radiation from the birth of the universe.

“Webb has an array of 18 hexagonal mirrors,” Mangus said. “It’s the most difficult mission I’ve ever worked on, but it’s going to be my swan song. I have a beautiful trout stream in right behind my house here in the Allegheny National Forest and I want to go fishing.”

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