Apr 9, 1999

Meteor balloon set for launch

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This weekend scientists will launch a weather balloon designed to capture meteoroids in the stratosphere. The flight will be broadcast live on the web from a video camera carried aloft to 100,000 ft.

Meteor Balloon Update: The balloon was released at 6:47 p.m. CDT on Sunday April 11, 1999. It ascended to a maximum altitude of 95,000 ft where it burst, as planned. The payload descended by parachute to a location near Pinson, Georgia, landing at 8:37 p.m. A replay of the video stream from the complete flight may be viewed here.

Artist Duane Hilton's concept of the meteor balloon in flight to the stratosphere
Apr. 9, 1999: On Saturday, April 10, NASA scientists will release a weather balloon designed to capture cosmic meteoroids flying through the stratosphere. The payload includes a xerogel microparticle capture device, similar in some respects to the cosmic dust collector on NASA's Stardust spacecraft, as well as a digital video camera to record a balloons-eye view of the flight. Links to a live webcast of the flight will be available at Weather permitting, the launch will take place at 4 p.m. Central Daylight Time on Saturday, Apr. 10.

Right: Artist Duane Hilton's concept of the science balloon launched at dusk, ascending toward the stratosphere.

Saturday's flight is part of a campaign by NASA scientists that began with a balloon flight in Nov. 1998 during the Leonids meteor shower.


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"Last November's experiment went very well," says John Horack, a scientist at the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. "Our engineering tests and video downlink were highly successful, and the meteoroid collector hovered in the stratosphere for nearly 2 hours during the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. After we recovered the payload we looked at these xerogel collectors with an electron microscope -- there were lots of tiny craters caused by impactors measuring 20 to 50 um. We caught something, but the question is 'What is it?' Did we catch meteoroids or something else?"

Saturday's flight is intended to help answer that question. Unlike last year's flight, which took place during the most intense meteor shower since 1966, this mission coincides with an annual lull in meteor activity.


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"It's a simple control experiment," continued Horack. "We've flown one balloon when the meteoroid flux at the very top of the atmosphere was high, and now we're going to fly another when the expected flux is low."

During the first quarter of every year there is a minimum of meteor activity when Earth is relatively far from dense cometary debris streams.

"Other than a few very minor showers, the only meteors to be seen between January 15 and late April of each year are sporadics," says Dr. Tony Phillips, a NASA astronomer. "Sporadic meteors are not associated with the debris stream from any particular comet. They come from a diffuse, low-level background of dust particles that permeates the inner solar system. On any given night you can see a few sporadic meteors per hour, on average, compared to hundreds of shooting stars per hour during an intense Leonids shower."

The rate of meteor activity is greatest near dawn because the earth's orbital motion is in the direction of the dawn terminator (see the figure). Earth scoops up meteoroids on the dawn side of the planet and outruns them on the dusk side.



"That's why we're launching the balloon near sunset," continued Phillips. "The body of the earth will act as a shield, or a barrier between the balloon and most incoming meteoroids."

NASA wants you
Readers can also participate in this innovative experiment by counting meteors on the evening of the balloon flight and reporting their results back to the NASA Star Trails Society. Click here for more information about how you can help.
A remotely controlled video camera attached to the balloon will record its ascent into the stratosphere. At first, the downward-looking camera will show the earth, the horizon, and distant clouds as illuminated by the setting sun. If all goes as planned, the 2 to 3 hour flight will continue after sunset and the camera will be pointed to show the night sky as viewed from the stratosphere. All video recordings will be transmitted to ground receivers and rebroadcast live over the Internet. Links to the real time webcast as well as replays after the flight can be found on Web Links

NASA/Ames Leonids MAC Workshop - April 12 - 15, 1999

Leonids' Particle Analyses from Stratospheric Balloon Collection on Xerogel Surfaces - conference abstract

Leonids Live! -site of the live webcast of the 1998 Leonids

Related Stories:

Leonid Sample Return Update -- Apr. 1, 1999. Scientists will describe initial results from a program to catch meteoroids in flight at the NASA/Ames Leonids Workshop April 12-15, 1999.

The Ghost of Fireballs Past -- Dec. 22, 1998. RADAR echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors.

Bunches & Bunches of Geminids -- Dec. 15, 1998. The Geminids continued to intensify in 1998

The 1998 Leonids: A bust or a blast? -- Nov. 27, 1998. New images of Leonid fireballs and their smokey remnants.

Leonids Sample Return payload recovered! -- Nov. 23, 1998. Scientists are scanning the "comet catcher" for signs of Leonid meteoroids.

Early birds catch the Leonids -- Nov. 19, 1998. The peak of the Leonid meteor shower happened more than 14 hours earlier than experts had predicted.

A high-altitude look at the Leonids -- Nov. 18, 1998. NASA science balloon catches video of 8 fireballs.

The Leonid Sample Return Mission -- Nov. 16, 1998. NASA scientists hope to capture a Leonid meteoroid and return it to Earth.

Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonid meteor shower -- Nov. 10, 1998. The basics of what the Leonids are and what might happen on November 17.


meteor flash!
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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack