EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Members of the Global Reach Combined
Test Force at Edwards stepped up to the plate Nov. 17 to help NASA
researchers capture one-of-a-kind data. The squadron offered 18 U.S.
scientists a ride aboard a specially modified aircraft, so they could
collect data during this year’s Leonid Meteor Shower.

The specially modified aircraft, an NKC-135E Stratotanker, is also
known as the Flying Infrared Signature Technology Aircraft, or FISTA.
The aircraft is equipped with more than 11 quartz-crystal windows
designed to support advanced technology optical data collection. The
windows include defrosters and adjacent mountings for cameras and
highly specialized equipment to gather signature data on meteors.

The mission launched from Edwards at 10 p.m. and flew throughout the
shower returning at 6:30 a.m. the following morning. While the shower
could be viewed from the ground, the goal for the mission was to get
above the clouds and other atmospheric interference to meet NASA’s
specific viewing needs.

According to Lt. Col. Jeff Smith, director of the Global Reach CTF,
with the current operations tempo at the test center, accommodating the
flight was challenging but well worth the extra effort. The aircraft
required extensive reconfiguration for the mission. In addition, with
the airfield’s main runway under construction and closed for the
weekend, the project had significant hurdles to overcome to allow for
launch and recovery, Smith said.

"Team Edwards came through in a crunch so that the international
scientific community would have this data," Smith said. "The team
worked round the clock during Veteran’s Day weekend configuring the
aircraft and all the next weekend flying the mission."

In the end, the mission went "flawlessly," said Smith.

"We were able to get the scientists and their equipment to the
right spot on the globe at the right time so they could gather the
information," he added. "This data is being used to better characterize
the threat that our satellites have to space hazards, so it’s benefits
will touch each of us someday."

Meteor storms have historically eluded planned observation. The Leonid
storm offered researchers an opportunity to plan viewing based on it
predicted appearance. The Leonids are minute dust particles shed by
Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet swings around the sun once every 33
years, leaving a trail of dust. Each November, the Earth’s orbit takes
it through that slowly dissipating trail.