This November, Peter Jenniskens will again be leading a NASA team to explore the 2002 Leonid meteor storm from high altitudes.
Meteor showers may be a beautiful, heavenly spectacle that can provide for a good evening of entertainment, but they are also much more. Meteors, or “shooting stars,” are streaks of light that appear in the sky when small particles from space enter Earth’s atmosphere. They have amazed stargazers for millennia. But only recently have scientists realized their importance to understanding the evolution of the solar system—and their connection to astrobiology. One shower in particular, the Leonids, has been especially strong recently. And this year, stargazers and scientists alike are in for a spectacular show, and astrobiologists will be closely monitoring from high altitudes.
In 1965, Comet (55P)Tempel-Tuttle, the comet responsible for the Leonid meteor shower, was rediscovered after being lost for nearly a century. The following year, many onlookers viewed flurries of meteors that may have reached 40 per second! Although we probably won’t experience rates that high this year, we will still be in for a good show. This is good news for Dr. Peter Jenniskens, the Principal Investigator (PI) for the Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign (MAC), which is designed specifically around tracking, monitoring, and recording the recent increased rates of the Leonids. Dr. Jenniskens has been following the Leonids closely since he noticed an increase in their rates in 1994. This year, after three successful missions, he and his team are gearing up for another intense Leonid storm (a heavy meteor shower).
Since 1998, Dr. Jenniskens has been leading the Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign. The MAC is an airborne NASA mission that brings together researchers from different disciplines to be able to examine the meteors from different scientific perspectives. Only an airborne mission can guarantee clear viewing and appropriate location to study the Leonids. The aircraft serves as a platform for various scientific instruments. Researchers on board use spectrometers, cameras, and counters (for meteor flux measurement) to gather their data. Experiments on the MAC help to answer important questions such as:
“Will a particularly intense meteor storm cause satellites to malfunction some time in the future?”
“What chemical reactions will occur as the meteors incinerate?”
“Might cometary debris have influenced the development of life on Earth?”
MAC missions also took place in 1999 and 2001 (low rates prevented a comprehensive MAC mission in 2000). This year, two planes will be monitoring the Leonids, the NKC 135-E FISTA and the NASA DC-8 Airborne laboratory. The planes can fly at a 100-km distance and make stereoscopic observations of the Leonids. For more details on the mission specifications, click here.
The 1998 MAC was dubbed as NASA’s first astrobiology mission. One of the overall objectives of the MAC is to “learn how extraterrestrial materials may have been brought to Earth at the time of the origin of life.” Also, MAC seeks to understand more about the reactions of meteors and Earth’s atmosphere. Specifically, Peter Jenniskens and his team are looking to find the fate of organic matter in the meteors as the plunge into Earth’s atmosphere. At the 2001 Meteoroids conference in Kiruna, Sweden, Dr. Jenniskens notes that “Meteors dominated the supply of organics to the early Earth if organic matter survived this pathway efficiently…Understanding these processes relies heavily on empirical evidence that is still very limited.” See full paper from conference here.
Depending on the year, the MAC team has flown to various parts of the globe to get the best views of the Leonids. In 2002, they will be flying above Spain. The Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB), an NAI International Partner, will host the deployment of the MAC. CAB will also participate in some of the key experiments on the DC-8 airborne lab. The Centro de Astrobiologia previously helped coordinate Leonid observations in 2000.
Information on the Leonids and the Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign is well documented on the MAC website. For example, during the 2001 mission researchers recorded some spectacular shots of the Leonids. You can view still images and even a short video on an 8 sec “Taurid fireball” at the MAC 2001 scientific results page.
If you are interested in viewing the Leonids this year, you will soon be able to access the Leonid MAC Flux Estimator to help find prime viewing conditions in your area.
also has an article giving more information on viewing.
You too can also be a part of the mission! Amateur astronomers are needed to help count local rates of the Leonid storm. If you are interested in being a counter for the mission, click here.