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Solar show: Scattered clouds don’t dampen enthusiasm of eclipse watchers and young scientists


Even though the sun didn’t go completely dark, Albuquerque residents were still plenty eager to get a glimpse of Monday’s Great American Eclipse, which covered 73 percent of the sun locally.

An estimated 237 to 250 people turned up at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, said the park’s superintendent, Beth Dillingham. The park was hosting an event that included activities such as making pinhole projectors and viewing the eclipse through a solar telescope.

However, the main attraction for many seemed to be the free eclipse glasses the center was handing out.

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“We had more than 20 calls (about the glasses) yesterday and it’s been apparently nonstop all morning,” said Heather MacCurdy, an educational ranger at the park.

A view of the eclipse from near Reserve, Kan., which was in the path of totality that stretched from coast to coast.

A view of the eclipse from near Reserve, Kan., which was in the path of totality that stretched from coast to coast. (Greb Sorber / Albuquerque Journal)

The park started handing out around 100 glasses at 10 a.m. and was completely out about an hour later. People were more than happy to spread the wealth, however, offering their glasses to complete strangers to allow them to get a look. MacCurdy said she was grateful for the willingness to share, which allowed a greater number of people to experience the eclipse.

Clouds were in the sky throughout the viewing, periodically shifting in front of the eclipse and blocking it from view. In spite of the less than ideal conditions, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“It was way beyond my expectations,” said Albuquerque resident Lenya Heitzig, who was visiting the park with her husband, Skip. “Right now it’s just a crescent so it’s really cool.”

Hands-on science

West Mesa High JROTC students launch a high-altitude balloon Monday morning to monitor the eclipse

West Mesa High JROTC students launch a high-altitude balloon Monday morning to monitor the eclipse. From left are Alec Reichard, 17, Samantha Mora, 17, Maj. Mark Hendricks, Victor Zarate, 17, and Alexis Hunter, 17. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

For West Mesa High’s Navy JROTC students, the eclipse provided the perfect opportunity to conduct a hands-on atmospheric science experiment.

A group of eight JROTC seniors gathered on the school’s field Monday morning and launched a helium balloon decked out with cameras to capture high-quality videos and photos of the phenomenon. Various sensors measured temperature, altitude and radiation.

 Students at Mark Twain Elementary took time to watch the eclipse Monday with the help of a telescope provided by Thomas Grzybowski, a member of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. Triton Nichols, 9 stands on a ladder to reach the telescope's eyepiece.

Students at Mark Twain Elementary took time to watch the eclipse Monday with the help of a telescope provided by Thomas Grzybowski, a member of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. Triton Nichols, 9 stands on a ladder to reach the telescope’s eyepiece. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Students from Los Lunas, Valencia, Belen and Santa Fe high schools and John Adams and Magdalena middle schools also sent up balloons from launch points across the state as part of the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project.

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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Tyler Pittman, a West Mesa cadet who hopes to study mechanical engineering. “It’s a lot of fun, and it teaches leadership and responsibility.”

The balloons are capable of reaching altitudes of more than 100,000 feet – high enough to get a clear view of the eclipse above the clouds.

Maj. Mark Hendricks, senior naval science instructor at West Mesa High School’s Navy JROTC program, monitored the GPS positions of all six student balloons online throughout the morning.

“I have never heard of any other event with this many miles of balloons,” he said. “Each balloon is worth about $2,000. We hope we get them all back. … We really don’t want them to come down in populated areas.”

The team can ensure that the balloon is properly inflated and payloads are secure, but there is some luck involved.

Three years ago, one of West Mesa’s research balloons “just kept going and going,” almost to the Texas border near Tucumcari, Hendricks said.

“We didn’t get back until after dark,” he added. “That’s the nature of the business.”

On Monday, West Mesa’s balloon traveled north of Albuquerque past Sandia Casino, then west toward Santa Ana Pueblo.

Later this week, students from all the schools in the Eclipse Ballooning Project will review their data.

“It’s cool to tell people we launched a balloon,” said Samantha Mora, West Mesa JROTC public affairs officer. “It’s crazy we get to do all of these STEM projects.”

Sgt. Matthew Garcia, head of the leadership/ROTC program at John Adams Middle School, hopes the experience will inspire students to go into math and science careers.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to show them science outside of the classroom, outside the textbook and hands-on,” Garcia said. “That’s the best way to learn.”

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