BOZEMAN – Though her feet were planted firmly on the ground, Montana State University junior Kendahl Hinthorne’s attention was focused high in the atmosphere last Oct. 14 as she monitored the camera equipment on a high-altitude balloon hovering at the edge of space during a rare annular solar eclipse.

That day, Hinthorne captured a transcendent photograph of Earth, the sun and a layer of clouds that had been visibly disturbed by gravity waves caused by sudden atmospheric cooling during the eclipse. The picture was one of the day’s triumphs for the MSU team participating in the NASA-sponsored Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project, or NEBP, which provides opportunities for college students to conduct advanced engineering and atmospheric science experiments during solar eclipses.

Now Hinthorne has captured another prize in the form of a $5,000 Zonta International Women in STEM Scholarship, which she will apply to her pursuit of a mechanical engineering technology degree in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. She is one of only 30 women striving for a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics to be honored with the international scholarship, and she believes her internship with the MSU Montana Space Grant Consortium BOREALIS ballooning program made her especially competitive.

“The internship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hinthorne said. “It’s all the (scholarship) committee wanted to hear about.”

Hinthorne, who is from Billings, came to MSU as a freshman to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. She recently decided to switch to the department’s mechanical engineering technology program, which she describes as more application-oriented and less theoretical.

“M.E.T. is about how to practically use engineering principles, and I’m having more fun with it,” she said. “I love it – I love all my classes.”

Practically applying engineering concepts is also what Hinthorne has enjoyed about her internship with BOREALIS, which stands for Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging System. Through the affiliated NEBP program, 34 engineering teams of students from across the U.S. designed and built payloads to be flown on high-altitude balloons up to 100,000 feet during the October 2023 annular eclipse and the upcoming total eclipse on April 8.

Hinthorne has focused on designing payload boxes and photographic apparatus to capture images from the balloons during flight. She has been involved with the camera work since she started her BOREALIS internship in fall 2022, building on an interest that began with a high school photography class in Billings.

“I’m thankful that the skill transferred to the ballooning program,” she said.

As an intern, she has been involved in multiple redesigns of the photographic payload, including the way the camera sits in the box, which contributed to the successful Oct. 14 image.

“NASA was super excited about the photo because they could see the gravity waves, which is what we’re studying,” Hinthorne said. “The photo inspired more teams, and they’re getting more interested in the photography aspect.”

She said she has advised NEBP teams from across the country about configuring camera settings and tweaking their payload boxes.

“I’ve been involved in lots of iterations,” she said. “It’s exciting to see it come to fruition.”

Randy Larimer, special projects director for Montana Space Grant Consortium and co-flight director for the BOREALIS program, said Hinthorne is also the team’s “go-to person” for 3D printing, as she fixed problems with two existing printers and built a third one for the team.

“I’ve always been interested in tinkering around with stuff,” said Hinthorne, who said she knew as early as middle school that she wanted to be an engineer.

She said the internship has provided invaluable, interdisciplinary experience in a good team environment. For example, she said, “There’s a lot of electrical engineering built into the project, and I get to talk to the electrical engineers and get a glimpse of what they’re doing with circuit boards.”

Larimer described Hinthorne as a dependable self-starter with the ability to work with a variety of people – qualities that she believes led her to some of the many opportunities available to MSU students who are willing to “dive in and be outgoing.

“There are so many different possibilities – you never know what you’ll get yourself into,” Hinthorne said.

- By Diana Setterberg, MSU News Service -

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