Nov 17, 1998

Up, Up, and Away: A High-Altitude Look at the Leonids

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Up, Up, and Away to the Leonids


Science Balloon Captures Eight Fireballs on Video from 100,000 Feet Up.


New: Leonids Photo Gallery


balloon inflation 2 a.m. CST 17 Nov
November 17, 1998: NASA scientists in Huntsville, Alabama got their first glimpse of the Leonids Monday night and early Tuesday morning, despite a thick blanket of fog across their "observatory." A digital camera, carried aboard a large weather balloon to an altitude of 100,000 feet captured eight spectacular fireballs during a two-hour flight that carried the camera nearly 150 miles, and offered internet viewing of the Leonids shower in real-time.

"This was an excellent flight," commented Dr. John Horack, an astronomer at NASA/Marshall, "everything worked great, and we got some excellent video - more than we could have ever seen from the ground, given the weather. It's not very often that the entire planet gets to be 'scientists' and participate in a global science experiment. And, it's very beautiful to look at."

The balloon lifted off at 2:28 am CST from the Atmospheric Research Facility on the campus of NASA/Marshall. Climbing at nearly 1,000 feet per minute, the camera offered a birds-eye view: first of the fog-enshrouded Huntsville area, and then the night sky.



click for 131KB animated gif


Image above is one frame of meteor recorded from the balloon (approx 3:32 a.m. CST Nov 17) Click for 131KB animated gif


Movie highlights from the balloon over Alabama.
  • balloon view of Leonids

Credit NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Requires Realvideo player (version 5). Click to download the RealVideo Player (from RealNetworks, Inc.


RealPlayer icon, click to download

In addition to the camera, two small plastic trays, each with 30 tiny wells filled with Aerogel, were fixed to the outside of the balloon package, in hopes of possibly capturing a tiny piece of micrometeorite dust. "The chances are small, probably less than 10% that we'll find something interesting," noted Dr. David Noever, regarding the probability of catching a piece of comet dust. "But the payoff would be extraordinary."

The balloon payload is currently being retrieved from north-central Georgia, where it was tracked by telemetry from its on-board GPS receivers.

Viewing of the Leonids continues tonight in North America, after the Earth has passed through the most populated portion of the cometary debris cloud. Check out for the latest information on the historic Leonid Meteor Storm of 1998.

Web Links


Leonids Live! - Links to live webcasts of the Leonid meteor shower

Meteor counts - submit your own meteor counts to NASA!

1998 Leonids Data Bank -- a useful summary of Leonids information from NASA Ames.

The November Leonids: Will they Roar? -- from JPL

Comet Tempel Tuttle image archive -- from NASA Ames

Eyewitness accounts of the 1966 storm -- an Ames Research Center Archive

Satellite Tracking - monitor satellites as they weather the storm

NASA's Office of Space Science - press releases and other news related to NASA and astrophysics

Related Stories:

Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonids Meteor Shower -- the basics of the Leonid meteors. Includes eyewitness accounts from the great 1966 storm and observing hints for 1998.

Halley's comet returns in bits and pieces -- story posted Oct 20 on the Orionid meteor shower

Giacobinids dazzle observers

Tune-up for the Leonids - story posted Oct 7, discusses the astronomy of the Giacobinids

External Links:

The Leonids -- from Gary Kronk Meteors and Comets web site

Leonids: the Night of Raining Fire -- Sky &Telescope article

The Leonids: King of the Meteor Showers -- Sky &Telescope article

International Meteor Organization


meteor flash!
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Author: Tony Phillips
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack