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Leonid Storm 1999: Flying through the Storm

Part 2

Our first night over the Atlantic was a night of trial and error. And success! We wanted to prepare ourselves for the real mission. It turns out that many of the researchers accomplished many of their goals on that first night. The Japanese group from the television network NHK imaged sprites above the clouds and lightning in and below the clouds. The Utah group was successful capturing Airglow spectrums stereoscopically. And everyone got the auroral display they hoped for.

My part on the flux measurement team was to count meteors and estimate the magnitude. Any meteor not a Leonid was counted as a sporadic, even though it was clear we saw plenty of other meteors such as Taurids. On this mission, there were only two categories, Leonid and sporadic. We had plenty to do just worrying about the Leonids.

We planned three nights of Leonid Storm measurement. Both the nights before and after the expected storm were full-time observing sessions for the flux measurement group. Last year's peak came earlier than planned and we didn't want to be caught with our goggles off. We had two nights in England, and we practiced with our goggles and counters on the ground, in the aircraft both nights. A contingency plan was devised in case the counting software couldn't keep up with the shower. We developed a manual form to use just in case. And we copied enough of them to see us though the peak night.

We were also getting used to being on a Universal Time schedule, the time we would keep to for the duration of the mission. So we worked (well mostly worked) at night and observed crew rest during the day. We did have a couple hours for English beer and camaraderie before crew rest in England both days. Some of us enjoyed cream tea and visits to many Cambridge colleges and gardens and a walk along the Cam one afternoon. One night Peter Jenniskens gave a school presentation, where he made a comet, and a dozen of us talked to the students, who afterwards wanted our autographs! Our visit inspired many students, and was one of my personal highlights of the trip. We poured liquid nitrogen (used on the other plane) on the school tables and explained meteors to a packed audience at a school on a nearby Air Force Base. The other night was, um ... ok it was a beer party in my room in the officer's quarters! But we worked on the aircraft 'till 1:30 AM that night (morning) before the party! For some, this was a highlight of the trip, and I have the pictures to prove it! And we all quit the party in time for scheduled crew rest. Barely!

The next days and nights blend together. It was the Leonid Storm, after all! The reason we were invited on this mission was to measure the flux of the Leonids. We traveled from England to Tel Aviv one night, to the Azores Archipelago of Portugal the next and then, on to Florida the next, and then home. Each crew rest period was barely enough time to take a quick look see of a new part of the world, followed by barely got enough sleep to be ready for mission night. Those of us who stay up all night as amateur astronomers had a distinct advantage. Both Gary Kronk and I mentioned we got more sleep than usual on this mission!! Now, it is my great pleasure to present the Leonid storm of 1999!

November 17th - Mildenhall AFB to Tel Aviv

21:15 on the 16th was the scheduled departure time from Mildenhall, but there were some delays - geo-political delays we with goggles had no idea about 'till afterwards. We were not allowed to fly over several countries air space, which ruined some of the stereoscopic imaging opportunities between the two aircraft -- and delayed the take-off. We grumbled at the hurry up and wait scenario. We anxiously awaited reaching 10,000 feet altitude, which was the level where we could leave our seat belted seats and set up cameras, goggles and computer. The rush to set up and observe was thrilling to watch and thrilling to experience. Most stations took maybe 10 minutes and a little duct tape to accomplish. Immediately after turning on our goggles we were clicking away . We saw Leonids or sporadics immediately. We had our first ZHR for the night 10 minutes later. The ZHR reached 15 Leonids and 14 sporadics this night. Updated every 10 minutes, we were very happy to see results close to predicted numbers.

The flux measurement team was a cohesive and helpful and fun group, just what you would expect from a bunch of amateur astronomers who got a free trip to the greatest show on (above) earth! Morning was dawning after many airborne hours aloft, and we took advantage of it, snoozing for minutes or more after stowing the equipment. Our stay in Tel Aviv was short. I took a walk on the Mediterranean almost to the ancient port of Jaffa (in my case), and some shopping with one of the three women on the mission (yes, there are shopping malls in Tel Aviv). I slept 4 hours. We had a nice group dinner at a trendy restaurant in Tel Aviv, and awaited the trip to the aircraft. We were ready for Leonid Peak night!

November 18th Tel Aviv to Terceira, Azores

At 23:00 hours we departed Tel Aviv. We were itching to set up and count meteors. An Air Force Colonel, Col. Pete Worden, joined us. He was the driving force behind funding this mission, and an honestly fantastic man. He loaded luggage into the cargo bay, donned goggles (I gave him a look through mine during the peak), talked over the internet to thousands and basically was a part of our mission. He has a Ph.D. in Astronomy, and told us not to "BS" him too much! He observed the Leonids last year from Mongolia!

The moment we were set up we saw Leonids. Lots of Leonids! I clocked the time I began counting at 23:37, and the expected peak was at 2:00, a little more than two hours later. I was counting twenty to thirty Leonids every 10 minutes right away. It is a good thing there was not a bigger group on the flux measurement team, because not one of us wanted to relinquish our goggles! We didn't want to take any eye breaks and miss any of the action! At about 00:45 November 19th the rates began to rise dramatically. Last night's ZHR of 15 soon became 50. Our intensive image cameras allowed us to see meteors down to 7th or 8th magnitude, lower than a normal person in a dark sky could see with a naked eye, so our "clicks" on the mouse were statistically adjusted. Leonids increased ten-fold every 10 minutes. Soon we were seeing multiple meteors in our goggles. They appear to stream down in clumps. Some seconds there were none, other seconds there were 5 to 15 in our field of view at the same time. The pauses between the "clumps" was dramatic! There were more faint magnitude 5 thru 7 meteors during the peak of the storm.

Everyone on the aircraft was energized. Whooping and hollering was heard in all quarters. The pilots had an awesome view! All the television monitors were showing the amazing images, a bank of 10 monitors held the media folks captive while they scribbled the times of the great fireballs for worldwide media distribution. Everyone without another duty was glued to window, monitor or goggle! I distinctly heard "wow" in Japanese, Dutch, German, English, American English, and Canadian English. I'm sure you all will understand that "wow" sounds the same in every language on earth! I felt part of a global light show that will never happen again in my lifetime. I savored every minute of it!

Now, I was clicking madly on my mouse, and could not keep up with the Leonids. The peak of the storm began promptly on schedule at about 2:00, rising to 2300 Leonids per hour. We actually saw many more Leonids each, but the numbers were adjusted for ZHR. Each member of my team hollered that they could not keep up! Each massive fireball or mighty mass of faint meteors brought exclaims of joy and wonder! We had a power outage during the peak, and some cameras needed film reloading just at the crucial moments. So I truly believe that once we go back to the tapes, and count every single meteor, and adjust for the ZHR, that the final peak of 2300 will go up quite a bit. I've seen other observers reports of 2,000 to 5,000 Leonids. I'll bet our number won't reach 5,000, but will be more than 2,300. The peak ebbed dramatically after about 10 minutes. We all knew when it was over, and in some ways we were glad, and some ways we were disappointed that the mighty show was over so soon. I heroically relinquished my goggles to Dr. Peter Jenniskens right during the peak. He was the driving force of the mission and the reason I was there to witness it, so I felt he had a right to see his dream come true ... to witness a Leonid Storm. I'll bet he didn't click the mouse every time he saw a Leonid. He was saying "Oh" "Oh" "Oh" with each passing Leonid, and I'm sure the brain cannot process both visual and aural orders, and make the finger press the mouse button at the same time. But I don't question my choice to let him see the main show! Plus, I was sitting in the easiest seat to relinquish. Soon after Peter left, Col. Worden was wanting to don the goggles. Well, he was sort of hovering, and it wasn't hard to read his mind, even in the dark. I again relinquished my precious goggles, and let him have a look. I then watched the meteor storm of 1999 through the window, naked eye, just like observers throughout the world were attempting to do. Seeing Leonids rain down on Canis Major, mighty Orion, and other constellations through the scratched windows was exhilarating! I'm glad I got to see them first hand too!

High five's abounded! Air force personnel hugged their civilian counterparts! We were all in ecstasy! We had witnessed and videotaped the Leonid Storm of 1999!

Jane Houston