Edmonds Space Agency specializes in tracking solar eclipses

Edmonds Space Agency image of the moon’s shadow on Earth from an altitude of 20 miles during the 2024 solar eclipse.

Most people aren’t aware that Edmonds has a space agency that specializes in tracking solar eclipses. The father-daughter team that started the Edmonds Space Agency (ESA) launched a weather balloon 20 miles above the ground in Brackettville, Texas, to capture what last month’s solar eclipse looked like from space.

With four cameras mounted in the balloon, they captured the moon’s shadow over a thick cloud cover, including the totality. For comparison, commercial airplanes fly between 33,000 to 42,000 feet high – or six to seven miles.

“It’s like an Easter egg hunt and Christmas morning all rolled into one,” said lead engineer and ESA cofounder Mark Wells. “We all felt like kids on Christmas morning when we first opened the module and started looking at the footage we captured. So many things had to go right to get there, [the software and hardware], the batteries had to keep running in minus-80-degree temperatures and with heavy radiation exposure…and then we have to get at least one telemetry ping via the satellite uplink from the ground after it lands so we can find it.”

Edmonds Space Agency cofounder Mark Wells (in yellow gloves) watches as the balloon goes up.

An Edmonds resident, Wells started ESA with his daughter, Mikayla, when the two entered the Global Space Balloon Challenge in late 2016. While attending Mountlake Terrace High as part of the high school’s STEM Program’s Honors Program, Mikayla experimented and demonstrated how E. coli resists antibiotics. 

“Then she wondered how the experiment [would go] if the bacteria were to be exposed to the environment in space,” Wells said. “We haven’t seen this done in research.”

ESA’s first launch was during the 2017 solar eclipse in central Oregon, where the balloon floated to 50,000 feet, capturing the moon’s shadow over the countryside with little cloud cover. After it burst, the balloon parachuted down onto a thick bramble of blackberry bushes on a farm. Farmers Rich and Jesse Farrier weed-whacked through 50 feet of bushes to recover the balloon and camera for Wells.

“If it weren’t for the Farrier family, we wouldn’t have gotten our module back,” Wells said. “We owe a debt of gratitude to them and bought a lot of blackberries from them,” Wells said. 

While capturing eclipses is part of ESA’s projects, Wells said that he and his daughter would like to gather more data about what is going on in the atmosphere. The two would run hundreds of simulations on the launch and where the balloon would land before the actual launch. He also credited Mikayla for designing the origin balloon and camera setup that kickstarted ESA. She is attending Boise State University, where she studies how space travel affects the immune system.

“It’s 60% art and 40% hard science,” Wells said. “We enjoy the process of engineering and putting things up to near space, measuring environmental conditions on the way up. Our short-term goal is to integrate 360-degree videos so that people can actually experience flight from a first-person perspective in a virtual reality headset. The user would be able to control the elevation they go to and what stage of the eclipse they are viewing.”

Image of New Mexico from near space during Edmonds Space Agency’s latest launch on May 5, 2024.

Wells said that there are no special requirements for “opening” a space agency. “But if you’re going to actually send something into orbit, then the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and other agencies [like] the Pentagon will definitely be involved,” he said. “Fortunately, we’re just operating at the edge of space so we don’t have to deal with nearly as much.”

Mark and Mikayla are not the only members of the Edmonds Space Agency. Other ESA members include Danny Schulz, Adam Bash, Kerry Sandstrom and Matt Leyerly.

Wells would like to launch a balloon from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and film the flight. To do so, he would need permission from the local Indigenous tribes first, he said. However, his ultimate dream is to launch a balloon in southern Australia during the 2028 solar eclipse. He and the ESA team are looking for sponsorship and private funding.

“We plan to continue to do balloon launches for educational purposes, and we would love to go and film any upcoming eclipses,” Wells said.

— By Nick Ng

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