Air Force gives NASA scientists a lift for Leonid mission


EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- Air Force flight test experts, NASA researchers, and a team of 42 astrobiologists from seven countries depart here Nov. 15 for a mission to Spain to observe and collect data on both of this year's Leonid meteor showers. The scientists will look for clues to the diversity of comets and their impact on the chemistry of life's origin on Earth.

RELATED LINKS Printable VersionDr. Michael Meyer, a senior scientist for astrobiology at NASA headquarters in Washington is among the researchers who are looking for answers as to whether meteors might have showered the Earth with the molecules necessary for life's origin.

According to Meyer, the team is eager to find out what material from space rains down on Earth and what happens to the organic matter when it interacts with the atmosphere.

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

One of the aircraft the team will use is a specifically modified NKC-135E Stratotanker, operated by Test Operations here. The Stratotanker will fly with NASA's DC-8 airborne laboratory aircraft and provide stereoscopic observations and spectroscopic measurements of mid-infrared and optical meteor missions.

In order to accomplish this, the NKC-135E aircraft is equipped with more than 11 quartz-crystal windows designed to support advanced technology optical data collection.

"There are very few aircraft with this many windows down the center, and you can put all sorts of instruments and cameras in the aircraft to conduct this mission," said Maj. Jon Haser, Edwards' global operations flight commander, and navigator for the mission. Haser, who has flown on two other Leonid missions for the Air Force, said the team learned after the first flight that the position and angle of where the two aircraft fly are critical factors in determining the quality of the research information that is collected.

"In the very first mission in 1998, we flew in a stacked formation but the data that we collected wasn't quite as good as what we had hoped for," said Haser. "So in 1999, we changed the flight so that the two aircraft would fly at 30-degree angle, about 60 miles apart, but at the same altitude, and we were able to get much better data. It's been that way ever since."

According to Haser, another reason the data has improved on each mission is because they have been able to have many of the same people on the flights and subsequently become more familiar with each other.

"Flying with foreign scientists aboard a U.S. aircraft is very different because they are not used to the normal Air Force rules," said Haser. "At first, you don't know what to expect from them, but the more you work with them, the better everyone is able to get in-tune with what the procedures are and what to watch for."

Meteor storms have historically eluded planned observation. The Leonid storms offer an opportunity to plan viewing based on heir 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 the slowly dissipating trail. This year's Leonid mission is scheduled to be the final one for NASA's astrobiology and planetary program.

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