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Hunting Leonids
What's Up: Brought to you by Jane Houston Jones
Color image of woman in a flight suit.
Jane in her Leonid-MAC flight suit.
By Jane Houston Jones

Have you ever looked out an airplane window and seen a meteor streak by? On one night in November 1999 I saw one flash, then another. Soon the sky was raining meteors! But I was on a special plane and it was a special meteor shower.

Color photo of jet aircraft.
ARIA is a modified Boeing 707 operated by the U.S. Air Force.
I flew through the great meteor storm in 1999 on the Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign. Usually the weather forecast for the November Leonids is "cloudy with a chance of meteors". The best place to view the highly anticipated and well-predicted storm of 1999 was above the clouds in an airplane. A meteor storm is when the meteor rates exceed 1,000 per hour.

A few days before the storm date of November 17, 1999, I dressed in my blue flight suit and attached my mission logo patch on my right sleeve. Seventy of us (half scientists, half U.S. Air Force) flew halfway around the world, landing in Tel Aviv, Israel, where we would depart on our long night of meteor research. We were in exactly the right place at the right time to record the Leonid Meteor Storm.

The aircraft I was on is called the ARIA - Advanced Ranging and Instrumentation Aircraft - a modified Boeing 707 with a long nose holding a telemetry antenna dish -- crucial for our live meteor reporting to NASA and the Air Force.

As soon as we were airborne, we quickly set up our instruments at each of ARIA's windows. We covered the windows with black curtains to keep the stray light away from the cameras and other instruments.

When we finished observing for the night our six-person meteor counting team had collectively counted over 15,000 Leonids! I was on cloud 9, flying through the great Leonid Storm of 1999!

Exactly 100 years before my flight of 1999, another woman astronomer was eagerly anticipating observing the Leonids from the air. American astronomer Dorothea Klumpke was the first woman airborne meteor observer. She only observed 15 Leonids that night from her balloon 1,600 feet above the French countryside. I think she would have been proud of the women flying through the Leonids one century later!

So what's so special about the Leonids? Ancient astronomers from China, Egypt and Italy reported the stars "fell like rain" in November of 962. Then in 1866, Ernest Temple and Horace Tuttle discovered a faint comet orbiting the sun every 33.2 years, and every 33 years the November meteor shower was stronger than usual.

Color image of meteor streak in night sky.
A Leonid captured on camera by Arne Danielsen. Reprinted with permission.
When the comet nears the Sun in its orbit, it releases dust and gas. This dust cloud orbits the sun along with the comet, just like the planets and other solar system objects. And every November 17th our Earth plows into the dust cloud in its own one-year orbit around the Sun. That's when we see the Leonids. And every 33 years or so, Earth passes near or through a more clumpy cloud from a past return of the comet. When that happens, it's fireworks time for the Leonids.

But that won't be the case this year.

This year's meteor count will be average, but with an expected outburst or two. You'll have to be in the right place at the right time to see more than the usual 10-20 meteors per hour.

The shower peaks at 21:30 GMT on November 17th. If you live in Asia you may see an outburst of around 200 meteors per hour for a very short time.

Unfortunately, that's the afternoon here in the U.S.

There is a good chance that between 3:30 and 5:30 am ET (or 12:30 to 2:30 am PT) the rates will shoot up a little bit to 25-30 meteors per hour.

I'll be out enjoying the Leonids, armed with a comfortable chair and a blanket, and hope you will too. I'll be looking up at the constellation Leo watching for the faint and fast streaks of light. If you tire of looking for meteors, look up just above Leo's mane.

That reddish object is Mars!

Below Leo's tail, you'll see the beautiful ringed planet Saturn, shining with a golden glow.

Now that's another great reason to be out under the stars on Leonid Night!


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About: Jane Houston Jones
Photo of Jane Houston Jones
Jane is an astronomer, NASA science podcast developer, writer, educational and outreach artisan and social media enthusiast. She and her husband have an asteroid (22338 Janemojo) named after them.
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Last Updated: 20 Jan 2011