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Leonid Storm 1999: Aboard the ARIA

Part 1

The drive from NASA Ames Research Center near San Francisco to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert was the beginning of my Leonid '99 adventure. It would end 10 days later, spanning half the globe during over 40 flying hours, mostly at night. Our group of 70 included 40 researchers, 25 Air Force personnel, and 5 members of the press -- give or take a few. We filled three aircraft. We were guests at 7 Air Force Bases; 4 in the US, two in the UK and one in Portugal's Azores. We literally covered the seams of the earth -- from the San Andreas fault on the border of the Pacific and North America plate to the Mid Atlantic Ridge on the island of Terceira in the Azore Archipelago of Portugal. We even had a short 12 hour stay in downtown Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea. Why all this November travel? The Leonid Storm of 1999, of course!

I was part of a 6 person team of mostly amateur astronomers, mostly experienced meteor observers on the flux measurement team. For 6 airborne nights the team counted the Leonids. The team was international in makeup. Claus Jobse from the Dutch Meteor Society developed the intensified image cameras. Gary Kronk from the American Meteor Society contributed vast meteor knowledge. Dave Holman from California Meteor Society brought a wealth of knowledge gleaned from many meteor campaigns with international experts. Chris Crawford from Oregon developed the software and counting technology and with it, over 30 years of meteor observing experience. Kelly Beatty from Sky and Telescope magazine rounded out the full time flux measurement team. Michael (Schmitty) Schmidhuber from Germany (working for ESA, the European Space Agency but on loan from the German Space Operations Center) ran his own image intensified camera and counted meteors with us some of the time.

Matt Lacey, of the NASA Ames Astrobiology mission and a graduate student at Stanford, ran experiments studying the spectra of persistent trains at high and low resolution; he had his own goggles and observed on his own right next to us. A Celestron Firstscope was part of his "eyes" to the Leonids. 19 year old Dave Nugent, a student at De Anza College was our computer guy, and made the rest of us feel very old.

Two other groups had experiments on my Air Force plane, the ARIA. Mike Taylor from the University of Utah was studying airglow and looked for sodium and magnesium in the persistent trains of the meteors. A group including scientists from NHK, the Japanese television network, had an array of HDTV cameras and spectrum grabbing equipment. They broadcast and recorded the greatest show on earth. One of their cameras was hooked up to one of our eye-goggles and flux measurement devices, so we got a HDTV view of the Leonid Storm. Dr Peter Jenniskens, project P.I. from NASA AMes and the SETI Institute, rounded out our team. The press contingent, from BBC, AP, NHK, NASA, Air Force, Spacenews dot com, and Sky and Telescope wove through the aisles. Kelly was working on our team, so while airborne, he wore his meteor flux measurement hat, not his media hat. Sixteen Air Force personnel manned our flight, and through the mission became part of our extended family. They held the mission together. Oh, there was one other thing that held the mission together. Can you guess? Why duct tape, of course!

The ARIA, acronym for Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft was our workplace most nights. This aircraft features among other things, a snoopy nosed holding tank in front for telemetry and a radar dish for downlinking data to Nasa Ames and US Space Command sites around the world. Newly installed optical glass windows would soon be covered in black plastic, hiding the array of 10 cameras. Cameras which soon would view the ancient cometary debris known as the Leonids.

The mission began Saturday morning, November 13, when "the wheels are in the well", as the pilot said. The five hour flight to the east coast, a refueling break, and a 7 hour flight to the UK were our first practice Leonid Storm runs. We set up equipment and counted meteors. We yelled at the media who shined bright cameras in our eyes. They didn't do it the rest of the flight (well, without asking anyway). It was a practice run for them too! Halfway across the Atlantic Matt Lacey noticed an unusual spectral signature on his spectrometer. We had hoped against hope to see and study the Aurora Borealis and there it was, pillars, curtains and flames of brilliance. A lone meteor streaked though the light show. A dramatic punctuation point. The other plane had asked for and had been granted permission to turn around and circle the auroral show, so their upward looking cameras (on the wrong side of the plane only) could gather data never gathered from an airborne observatory. We all whooped and hollered, excited beyond belief! We shared the goggles, which intensified the light show dramatically over the views out the non-optical glass windows. 30 years of aircraft use had left them badly scratched. We glimpsed the aurora spectacle through all available windows, goggles and the array of television monitors. And we filmed hours of Leonids streaking through the aurora borealis. What a show! But the real show had not even begun yet!

Jane Houston