NCAR Flies Research Aircraft Below Once-In-A-Century Meteor Storm

November 04, 1998

BOULDER--Two research aircraft carrying new scientific observing instruments and high-definition TV cameras will seize a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to observe in stereo the Leonids meteors, expected to race at 160,000 miles per hour and bright as Venus into the Earth's upper atmosphere on November 17. An L-188C Electra, owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, will depart from Jefferson County Airport on November 5, to be joined by an Air Force KC-135 in the night skies over Okinawa, Japan, during the two-hour meteor storm. Only once a century does the Earth's orbit cross the dense part of the tail of comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle, which produces the storm. NSF is NCAR's primary sponsor.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is heading the experiment, which is the first mission in NASA's Astrobiology Program, created to study the origin and prevalence of life in the universe. Peter Jenniskens, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute and NASA Ames Research Center, conceived of and organized the experiment, called the Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign; it is also supported by NSF, the U.S. Air Force, and NHK Japanese television.

"What the return of Halley's comet was to comet studies, the return of a Leonid storm will be to meteor astronomy," says Jenniskens. "The Leonid showers' historic role cannot be overemphasized, but scientific observations have been very few."

The two aircraft are needed to raise the observing instruments into clear skies above the weather-laden lower atmosphere and to provide stereoscopic observations. The Air Force's FISTA (Flying Infrared Signatures Technology Aircraft) will circle the NSF/NCAR Electra in a racetrack pattern between 30,000 and 40,000 feet while the Electra flies back and forth (north-south) within the loop about 10,000 feet lower. At these altitudes (7 to 10 kilometers, or roughly 4 to 6 miles) both planes will be safe from the meteors above, which will burn up at 100- 120 kilometers (60 to 75 miles) above the ground.

The meteor storm will occur when the Earth enters the dense debris behind Temple-Tuttle on November 17, 1998, and again on November 18, 1999. Although the comet returns every 33 years, its orbit crosses the Earth's only once every hundred years. This century's crossing offers scientists a close look at the trails of unusually fresh and large (millimeter- to centimeter-size) material entering the earth's atmosphere at the fastest possible meteor speeds--72 kilometers per second (160,000 miles per hour). Best observations will be from East Asia (China and Japan). Next year, Europe and North Africa will offer the best viewing. From the ground, the source of the storm appears to be the constellation Leo.

A major scientific goal of the mission is to determine how a meteor's mass compares to its brightness. To date, scientists can only guess how much material enters the atmosphere during a meteor shower. To attack the problem, the Electra will carry a dual-beam lidar (laser-based radar) built this year to detect iron vaporized from the meteors in the upper atmosphere. Most meteors are rich in iron, which can be excited to fluorescence by the lidar's near-ultraviolet laser beams. The new instrument was developed by scientists and engineers from the University of Illinois, NCAR, and the Aerospace Corporation.

Also on board will be an airglow imager; several high-resolution visible-wavelength imagers; and NHK's intensified, high-definition TV cameras. Researchers will compare meteor brightness on the TV camera image to the iron density and temperature measured by the dual lidar to arrive at a brightness-mass correspondence. This may enable them to one day estimate the weight of a meteor shower from its brightness alone.

"The dual-beam lidar was built for the Electra, which provides an excellent airborne platform for this kind of study, " says NCAR project manager Bruce Morley. "We know very little about iron in the atmosphere and even less about the iron contribution from meteors. Observing just one meteor accurately from the sky would make a big difference to our understanding."

The Electra is a four-engine turboprop, modified and highly instrumented for atmospheric research. Participants flying on the Electra are from the University of Illinois at Urbana, the University of East Anglia (United Kingdom), NHK, and the SETI Institute. NCAR is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 60 universities offering Ph.D.s in atmospheric and related sciences.

Electra Flight Schedule for Leonids98
(all are night flights for en-route research)

November 5
Depart Jefferson County Airport to NASA/Ames

November 6
Depart NASA/Ames to Maui

November 8
Depart Maui to Kwajalein (Johnson Island, fuel stop)

November 13
Depart Kwajalein to Guam

November 14
Depart Guam to Okinawa
Note to Editors: Reporters are invited to the Jeffco Airport on November 5 to film Electra's departure and interview NCAR's Leonids project manager Bruce Morley.

Visuals: High-resolution color photos of the Electra are available via the Internet using anonymous ftp: Log on to, using the userid: anonymous; password: [your e-mail address]; directory: /communications [include the slash]; filenames are elecnight1.tif, elecnight2.tif, elecnight3.tif, elecnight4.tif, and electra.tif Web Sites: For more information on Leonids98, see the following: During the mission, video animation and images will be available at:

Find this news release on the World Wide Web at

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National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

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