Edwards to ferry NASA scientists around world in 8 days to study Leonoids
by Ray Johnson
Edwards AFB, Calif.
After a weak celestial show in 1998, NASA's Peter Jenniskens dreamed of chasing Leonid meteor storms once again in 1999. "This will be our last shot at it for a century," he said after last year's effort. "The mission we have in mind would circle the world, and do that in just a few days."
He's getting his wish with two Edwards airplanes: a modified KC-135 tanker called the Flying Infrared Signature Technology Aircraft, or FISTA, and an EC-18 that normally serves as an Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft, or ARIA. Both aircraft, which belong to the 452nd Flight Test Squadron, and 25 airmen will ferry 50 scientists on an eight-day, 18,000-mile journey that will take them from the Mojave Desert to Europe to the Middle East and back. The researchers' intent: to gather data during a natural fireworks show called Leonid.
Capt. Jamie McKeon, left, Capt. Jon Hasser, Capt. Jeff Lampe and Maj. Tracy Phelps plan the 452nd Flight Test Squadron's eight-day mission for the Leonid meteor shower. The Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., unit is flying NASA scientists overseas to study the Leonid meteor storm in modified EC-18 and KC-135 aircraft.
A Leonid meteor shower occurs every November when Earth passes close to the orbit of comet Tempel-Tuttle. Usually not much happens, according to NASA officials. Earth plows through a diffuse cloud of old comet dust that shares Tempel-Tuttle's orbit, and debris burns up harmlessly in the atmosphere. Typical Leonid meteor events consist of only 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour. But every 33 years, that meek shower surges into a full-fledged storm, when thousands of shooting stars rain down from the sky hourly.
That's what Jenniskens and his crew hope to witness on this trip. The two-ship formation leaves here Nov. 13 with the first stop being a "gas and go" at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., said Capt. Jeff Lampe, aircraft commander for FISTA. From there it's on to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, where they'll launch late Nov. 16 for a seven-hour mission to Tel Aviv, Israel, hoping to capture a streaking light display in clear, dark skies.
The next night they will leave on their main flight, an eight-hour mission to Lajes Field, the Azores, a small island several hundred miles off the coast of Portugal. It's there scientists believe they will follow a trail of thousands to tens of thousands of meteors per hour. On this route, the two Edwards planes will fly 100 miles parallel to each other, giving researchers "an almost stereoscopic (three-dimensional) viewing," said Maj. Tracy Phelps, commander of the EC-18. Finally, the team will fly another seven-hour mission from Lajes to Patrick AFB, Fla., Nov 18-19, and then return home Nov. 20.
With powerful telescopes scattered throughout the world, some people might wonder why take such a time-consuming trip. The answer: Only an airborne mission can bring scientists to the right place at the right time to view Leonid, and guarantee clear weather. Moreover, using both the FISTA and C-18 allows scientists to measure meteor trajectories and orbits in space along with triangulating data. Indeed, this mission centers on two Edwards aircraft serving as observation platforms for cameras and investigative instruments. Therefore, both planes have undergone modifications for the journey, including installation of optical windows, special camera gear and antenna mounts. And besides helping collect data for NASA, the C-18 also will downlink real-time video for Air Force Space Command.
Capt. Jon Haser participated in last year's Leonid event and will be going again this year. He said the crews didn't get the expected meteor storm. "It was sporadic, but they were some persistent trails that lasted five seconds or so. Hopefully, the sky's alive this time." Maybe he will get to witness what James Young of the Joint Propulsion Laboratory's California Table Mountain Observatory did in 1966, when the last great Leonid storm occurred. He remembers a heaven "absolutely full" of meteors. Young called it a "sight never imagined ... and never seen since."
Source: Edwards Air Force Base