Leonids activities at Marshall make for meteorically successful night

November 18, 1999

Engineers and scientists working around the clock in the Leonid Environment Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., recorded a peak of some 1,700 Leonids meteors an hour about 8 p.m. CST Wednesday.

This intense Leonids activity was most visible over Europe and the Middle East, with 40 to 60 meteors per hour being sited over North America. The Leonids shower happens every year when Earth passes close to the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle and the debris left in the comet's path. As Earth travels through the comet dust, the debris burns up in Earth's atmosphere, and observers typically see about 10 to 20 shooting stars an hour.

This year, Marshall engineers reported a peak of 1,700 Leonids meteors per hour, with even more counted in some individual reports. This higher number of meteors was observed because Earth passed only about 68,000 miles (110,000 kilometers) from the comet debris cloud.

"The peak occurred within 20 minutes of the time the computer models predicted it would occur," said Dr. Jeff Anderson, who was among the Marshall engineers staffing the Leonid Environment Operations Center. "That's a very good prediction. We've gained valuable knowledge of the Leonid Meteor shower and confirmed the accuracy of the computer model used to predict meteor showers."

Information on meteor activity and intensity was distributed to NASA and U.S. Air Force satellite operators to ensure safe satellite operations. Although a typical meteor is smaller than a grain of sand, it travels more than 40 times the speed of a bullet. Meteor impacts can impair satellites and their sensitive sensors.

"The joint Leonids operation center worked extremely well," Anderson said. "Representatives of NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the University of Western Ontario in Canada came together to form a great team."

Early Thursday morning, Marshall scientists launched a weather balloon with a camera that recorded images of meteors streaking across the sky and the sounds of meteors burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Video and sound recordings, downlinked from the balloon to the Marshall science Web site, can be viewed at: http://www.Leonidslive.com

The 10-foot (3-meter) diameter weather balloon lifted off from Marshall's Atmospheric Research Facility at 12:37 a.m. CST and ascended to an altitude of 20 miles (32 kilometers). A television camera recorded stars, planets and meteors with excellent clarity. Although the meteor shower peaked over Europe earlier in the evening, the camera captured more than a dozen meteors during a flight, lasting four hours, 28 minutes.

Marshall used computer commanding to separate the balloon from the payload carrying the camera at 4:45 a.m. CST. The payload reached the ground at 5:05 a.m. CST, and shortly afterward the balloon landed near Rome, Ga. Both the payload and balloon are being recovered.
Interviews, photos and video supporting this release are available to media representatives by contacting Steve Roy of the Marshall Media Relations Department at (256) 544-0034. For an electronic version of this release, digital images or more information, visit Marshall's News Center on the Web at: http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/news

For information about the U.S. Air Force role during the Leonid storm, contact Lt. Col. Don Miles at (719) 554-3842.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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