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Stormy Night for Astrobiologists Studying Leonid Meteors
Stormy Night for Astrobiologists Studying Leonid Meteors
18 Nov 1999
(Source: Ames Research Center)

Kathleen Burton
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
(Phone: 650/604-1731, 650/604-9000)

Laura Lewis
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
(Phone: 650/604-2162, 650/604-9000)

RELEASE: 99-77

Astrobiologists on a NASA mission to study the Leonid meteors were in the right place at the right time to study a rare natural phenomenon - a meteor storm.

At the peak of the storm, which occurred at 02:10 GMT, Nov. 18, the Leonid meteors were falling from the sky at a rate of 2,200 per hour. A meteor shower is classified as a storm when the rate exceeds 1,000 meteors per hour.

"It's getting to the point where we can't click fast enough to keep up with the meteors!" exclaimed Dave Holman of the California Meteor Society, one of several amateur astronomers on the meteor-counting team. A total of 15,251 meteors were counted during the six-hour observation period on the overnight flight from Israel to the Azores.

"That's a lot of meteors!" said Chris Crawford, the amateur astronomer responsible for compiling the data collected from each person counting the meteors. "I've seen just about as many meteors in one night as I've seen in over 34 years of meteor watching."

Near real-time data on the number of meteors falling per hour was provided to NASA and the U.S. Air Force by a team of amateur astronomers who counted the meteors using virtual reality goggles and laptop computers. The meteor counting team was aboard the ARIA, one of two aircraft provided by the United States Air Force to support this mission. The data was sent from the ARIA, an EC-18 aircraft, to the ground via the TDRS satellite system. NASA and the Air Force are joint sponsors of the Leonid Multi-instrument Airborne Campaign.

"I am ecstatic over how well this night went!" said Peter Jenneskins, chief scientist for the Leonid mission. "Our models proved to be right on for predicting where and when the meteor storm would take place. We gathered some fantastic images, and the data obtained should provide valuable insight into the role meteors may have played in the evolution of life on Earth."

While viewing the horizon at one point during the storm, meteors, lightning and sprites could be seen from the planes. Sprites are lightning phenomena that rise from the ground to the sky. "For 10 minutes we had a view of the way the sky may have looked on Earth over 4 million years ago," Jenneskins said. "It was an awesome sight."

The second observing night of the Leonid astrobiology mission began when the ARIA and FISTA aircraft left Tel Aviv at about 23:00 GMT, Nov. 18. The flight crew of the ARIA reported seeing two meteors almost as soon as the wheels left the ground. Once the planes reached altitude, they began flying in 150 nautical mile flying patterns from east to west over Israel and the Mediterranean. These orbits provided a unique opportunity for scientists on the planes and scientists on the ground to collaborate. The data collected from the planes will be combined with visual, radar and radio observation data from Israeli scientists on the ground to form an extremely comprehensive data set regarding the Leonid meteors.

The aircraft stopped the orbits after one hour and continued westbound towards the Azores, flying approximately 80-100 nautical miles apart at 37,000 feet. ARIA's path flew the scientists off the coast of Crete and over Sicily, while FISTA's path flew over mainland Greece and the boot of Italy. ARIA then flew over the top of Menorca and Majorca, crossed central Spain by Madrid, and continued over the top of Portugal down to the Azores. FISTA flew over Sardinia and Barcelona and out the northwest corner of Spain, and then down to the Azores. The planes landed at Lajes Airbase in the Azores at approximately 07:15 GMT, Nov. 18.

While over Spain and Portugal, scientists on the aircraft performed coordinated observations with a series of ground based observing teams.

"The coordinated air and ground observations that were conducted during the flight are an invaluable part of this highly successful mission," stated Col. S. Pete Worden, of the United States Air Force headquarters, Washington, D.C. "Not only do we have a phenomenal set of data from the air, but we also have complimentary data from the ground that can be used to help us better understand and predict meteor storms and the impact they may have on space operations." Col. Worden flew aboard the ARIA aircraft from Tel Aviv to the Azores. The Air Force operates more than 100 satellites that could be affected by a meteor storm.

It takes the Earth a few days to get through the debris trail left by the periodic comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle that produces the Leonid meteors. Therefore, one more observation night is sched

uled during a flight from the Azores to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The scientists and crew aboard the ARIA and FISTA are not the only people able to see the Leonid meteors from the unique vantage-point of an airplane. Live video from the plane is being sent to the internet during the mission for people on the ground to watch.

For current information about the Leonid Multi-instrument Airborne Campaign visit:

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