It’s a sinking question hovering above the growing excitement for this spring’s total solar eclipse: what if April 8 is a cloudy day?
A group of local volunteers in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., has been working over the past several years to ensure a perfect view of the spectacle, regardless of any cloud cover.
The town (within the District of Carleton North) is already positioned perfectly within the eclipse’s path of totality and will also serve as the launch site for a helium balloon following the event high above central New Brunswick.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon aligns precisely between the sun and Earth, blocking light. This April’s eclipse will follow a path of totality over central New Brunswick during the late afternoon, with totality lasting up to three minutes and 20 seconds in some areas.
The helium balloon will carry a solar telescope for what’s believed to be the first non-governmental project to transmit images from the stratosphere in real time.
“We have to deal with both aviation authorities in Moncton and in Boston,” says project lead David Hunter. “So a lot of work went into this, getting this launch possible.”
Hunter, a retired medical physicist, was inspired to mark this spring’s eclipse after experiencing the 2017 total solar eclipse in Wyoming, Neb.
When he moved back to his hometown, Hunter learned Florenceville-Bristol was directly under the 2024 eclipse’s centre line of totality.
What he initially thought would be a small endeavour to celebrate the occasion has become a community wide effort, with about 30 volunteers filling multiple roles.
“It’s nerve-wracking but I’m feeling a bit more relaxed these days because most of the technical challenges have been overcome,” says Hunter. “We’re still making some improvements.”
One of the biggest challenges will be keeping the solar telescope focused on the eclipse, as the rotating payload it will sit on tips and bounces in the air.
“At the same time there will be other cameras looking around, not just at the sun, but looking at the landscape, and the clouds,” says Hunter. “We hope to see the approaching shadow of the moon from the west when it comes here to New Brunswick.”
Members of the public will be able to watch the solar telescope balloon launch in person on April 8 from Florenceville-Bristol, near the Amsterdam Inn.
Images from the solar telescope will be streamed in real time online, as well as viewing events at five local arenas.
Test launches of the helium balloons have taken place over the last several months. On Wednesday, volunteers gathered near the launch site to conduct a check of images being transmitted from the payload.
“I initially got involved thinking I would only be spending a few hours on this and a couple hundred hours later I basically do all of the communications,” says Stephen Downward, a volunteer with the project. “There’s just so many moving parts.”
Where exactly the helium balloon travels and lands will depend on the weather, however atmospheric models are being used to project its trajectory with four tracking devices attached.
“We have a recovery team that will go out and recover the payload,” says Hunter. “We’re downloading all the data live, so if we don’t recover the images it’s not game over. We’ll have all the images.”
While a cloudy day would be disappointing on April 8, Hunter (who’s also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada New Brunswick Centre), says severe weather or high winds could ultimately ground the balloon for launching on eclipse day.
“We’re hoping the weather will co-operate enough for us to launch,” says Hunter.
Volunteers with the solar telescope project also met on Wednesday with the local RCMP and fire department to develop crowd and traffic plans. Col. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, is scheduled to be in Florenceville-Bristol for an event following the eclipse.
Last week, the local Anglophone West School District confirmed school would be dismissed three hours early on April 8, ahead of when the eclipse is scheduled to start around 3:30 p.m.
April’s solar eclipse will also be seen in other parts of Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, as well as portions of the United States and Mexico.
After 2024, New Brunswick’s next total solar eclipse will occur on May 1, 2079.