Air Force News Service

Released: 2 Dec 1999

Edwards aircrews enjoy front-row seats for Leonid

By Ray Johnson, Air Force Flight Test Center Public Affairs

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 planes.

“I heard ‘wow’ in Japanese, Dutch, German and English,” said Jane Houston of the California Meteor Society. “Everyone was energized at the
amazing images.”

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 excitement.

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 Lane.

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.