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NASA PREPARES FOR "LAST CHANCE" METEOR SHOWER

November 15, 2002

Release: 02-58

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The last best chance this century to observe spectacular Leonid meteor showers is the mission of a NASA research aircraft that departs for Spain on Friday.

"Even with the full moon, this year's Leonids will probably be better than any other for the next hundred years," said Dr. Don Yeomans, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "If you're ever going to see them, this might be the year to try."

A team of 42 astrobiologists from seven countries departs from southern California's Edwards Air Force Base on a mission to Spain to observe this year's two Leonid storm peaks. Their DC-8 Airborne Laboratory, operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., carries high-speed cameras, a radio receiver to listen to upper atmosphere molecules, and a team of meteor observers, who will keep track of the meteor activity for satellite operators concerned about impact hazards.

The Leonids are grains of dust from comet Tempel-Tuttle colliding into the Earth's atmosphere. Most Leonid particles are tiny and will vaporize very high in the atmosphere due to their extreme speed (about 44 miles per second, or almost 71 km/sec). Earth intersects the comet's debris trail each November, but the intensity of the year's Leonid meteor shower depends on whether Earth ploughs through a particularly concentrated stream of dust within the broader debris trail.

Although the meteors are harmless to people, there is a slight chance that a satellite could be damaged if it was hit by a Leonid meteoroid. The Leonids are moving so fast that they vaporize on impact, forming a cloud of electrified gas called plasma. There is a risk that a Leonid-generated plasma cloud could cause a short circuit in a satellite, damaging sensitive electronic components.

A modified NKC135-E aircraft, operated by the 418th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, will travel parallel to the NASA aircraft to provide stereoscopic observations and spectroscopic measurements of mid-infrared and optical meteor emissions.

The researchers will observe the first storm peak on Nov. 18 at 11 p.m. EST, just after departing from Torrejon Air Force Base in Spain. They will observe the second storm at 5:30 a.m. EST on Nov. 19 over the Great Lakes, en route to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Researchers think meteors might have showered the Earth with the molecules necessary for life's origin. The two-aircraft campaign, led by astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., will investigate this possibility. "We are looking for clues about the diversity of comets and their impact on the chemistry of life's origin on Earth," Jenniskens said.

Minimizing the threat meteoroids pose to satellites is the second major area of NASA's Leonid research. The research data from the Leonids shower will be analyzed to help NASA engineers refine their forecasts for spacecraft; by better determining where, when, and how the meteors will strike, NASA can improve protective measures to prevent or minimize damage to spacecraft.

The scientific effort involves NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and NASA centers including Ames, Dryden, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

For more information, including predicted peak times for major cities and NASA media contacts, refer to: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/gsfc/topstory/2002/1114leonid.html

--nasa--

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