Dec. 03, 1999 -
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- Sitting inside their cockpits
Capts. Jeff Lampe and Frank Lane owned a view that Bob Uecker certainly
would be jealous of. The two 452nd Flight Test Squadron pilots truly had
front-row seats for the heralded Leonid meteor shower.
Lampe and Lane belonged to a 25-man team from the Air Force Flight Test
Center here that ferried 50 NASA scientists to Europe and the Middle East to
study Leonid, a meteor storm that occurs only every 33 years.
From his EC-18 Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft, or ARIA, Lane said
that for two nights he witnessed a "stream of shooting stars" during a
natural light show that garnered a global audience.
"However, they were brighter than what people saw from the ground because we
caught them entering the atmosphere," Lane said. "The meteors would pretty
much streak the full length of the sky."
Besides the ARIA, Edwards also supplied a modified NKC-135E tanker tagged
the Flying Infrared Signature Technology Aircraft, or FISTA. The pair of
aircraft served as observation platforms for cameras and scientific
instruments used by a crew of international astronomers. And by all
accounts, the researchers got what they came for -- especially on the last
night of the eight-day journey.
On Nov. 18, as the party headed from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Lajes Field, the
Azores -- a small island several hundred miles off the coast of Portugal --
Leonid showers comprised of sand-grain sized dust and ice pellets peaked.
Scientists, watching television monitors and wearing virtual reality goggles
with which to count stars whooped with joy in several different languages as
roughly 2,500 meteors blazed hourly in dark skies above the Air Force
"I heard 'wow' in Japanese, Dutch, German and English," said Jane Houston of
the California Meteor Society. "Everyone was energized at the amazing
From his FISTA, Lampe said he spotted streaks appearing everywhere.
"While you usually see one shooting star at a time, we saw five over here,
five over there and so forth."
Dr. Peter Jennisken, chief NASA scientist for the Leonid mission, called the
night "fantastic and gorgeous."
"There were 78 beaming faces, researchers and aircrew alike," said
Jennisken, who works at the NASA Ames Research Center, Calif.
The airborne observers, however, weren't the only enthusiasts surveying
fireballs. From Hawaiian mountaintops to Arabian deserts, trained
astronomers and ordinary stargazers alike soaked in the celestial light
show. Because Leonid, which is debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet, occurs
only once every three decades, it's easy to understand the curiosity and
With the two Edwards jets, the 18,000-mile mission probably provided for the
most studied meteor storm in history. Flying in parallel formation at about
30,000 feet and 100 miles apart, FISTA and ARIA gave the researchers a
stereoscopic (three-dimensional) view, said Lampe, who served as the Leonid
task force commander as well as piloting FISTA.
Jennisken applauded Lampe's team for changing course toward several meteor
sightings to provide prime viewing for mid-infrared, near-infrared and
visible spectrograph imagers.
Jennisken also appreciated that the ARIA aircrew sent live video feed to
various research centers throughout the journey -- a first, according to
Normally, ARIA uses a nose-mounted radome to record and store telemetry from
space vehicles and missiles. For Leonid, it downlinked real-time data via a
satellite system to NASA and Air Force Space Command ground sites. Some of
the imagery was immediately broadcast on television and various Web sites.
And because of FISTA and ARIA, NASA researchers captured two different
phenomena for the first time on film and through instrumentation, Lane said.
One was the relation between incoming meteors and thunderstorms, and whether
there's any electrical discharges between the two. The other phenomenon is
persistent train, a sustained light that trails shooting stars entering
Earth's atmosphere. Usually, a brief meteor glow called a wake lasts one to
10 seconds. For Leonid, they can last up to 30 minutes.
With such information now collected, Lane said NASA researchers will try to
determine upper atmosphere winds by measuring how the trains dissipated and
how they were contorted.
And "to top it off," said Jennisken, his crew observed some sprites, upward
lightning that some researchers believe is triggered by meteors.