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A Wild Ride in Search of Meteors

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A Wild Ride

A weather balloon hits the stratosphere in search of meteors

Artist Jack Egan's concept of the meteor balloon in flight to the stratosphereApr. 14, 1999: Last Sunday in Huntsville, Ala., a weather balloon was launched amid the golden light and stretching shadows of late afternoon. The whipping wind quickly carried the balloon aloft at 6:47 p.m. CDT, encouraged by the enthusiastic cheers of the launchers. Their eyes followed the balloon until it disappeared into the expansive blue sky, then they quickly huddled around tiny TV monitors to watch scenic video filmed from the balloon’s payload.

Right: Artist and Star Trails Society member Jack Egan created this rendering of the Meteor Balloon in flight. (Copyright 1999 J. Egan, all rights reserved)

Thanks to the balloon’s downward-pointing video camera, anyone with Internet access could watch the world from the balloon’s point of view. The live webcast featured images of the sunset as seen from 80,000 ft and eerie gurgling sounds caused by high altitude winds. Selected video highlights are now available for replay. They include a movie of the launch, sunset from the stratosphere, and an audio recording of the balloon bursting at 95,000 ft.

Click to view video highlights from the flight!


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The weather balloon was designed to capture cosmic meteoroids flying through the stratosphere. Along with the video camera, the payload included several xerogel samples strategically placed to capture microscopic meteoroid particles. The camera and one of the capturing devices could be operated remotely via radio frequencies. The remote controlled capturing device was similar in some respects to the cosmic dust collector on NASA's Stardust spacecraft.

The balloon reached a maximum altitude of 95,000 ft. The atmospheric pressure at this height caused the balloon to burst and the payload parachuted down in northwest Georgia at 8:37 p.m.

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Capturing the fallen balloon was perhaps a greater adventure than launching it. By 10:30 p.m., volunteer balloon chasers Ralph Fowler and Eddie Foust triangulated the position of the payload to a small house 5 miles west of Adairsville, Georgia.

"Local resident Chet Hale offered to drive them back across a cow pasture and through some gates until they saw the strobe light and heard the Sonalert beeper," says Bill Brown, a balloon launch volunteer. "Although the chase team woke him up in order to roam about on his property, Mr. Hale was quite thrilled about chasing the payload in the middle of the night."

The payload atop a tree in a Georgia cow pasture, by Duane Hilton The payload was eventually found at the top of a 15-ft. tree. The xerogel samples will be sent back to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to be analyzed and compared with the samples taken during the Leonids weather balloon flight last November.

"Last November's experiment went very well," says Dr. John Horack, a scientist at NASA Marshall. "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 did we catch - meteoroids, or something else?’"

Sunday’s flight was intended to help answer that question. Unlike last year's flight, which took place during the most intense meteor shower since 1966, this mission coincided with an annual lull in meteor activity. Because meteor activity is greatest near dawn, Sunday’s launch was scheduled at dusk.

"We're launching the balloon near sunset so the body of the earth will act as a shield, or a barrier, between the balloon and most incoming meteoroids," says Dr. Tony Phillips, a scientist with NASA/Marshall. "The low flux of meteoroids will make this flight serve as a control experiment for the 1998 Leonids flight."

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


Partners in Discovery:

Partners in DIscoveryMembers of the NASA Star Trails Society helped in both this and the 1998 Leonids balloon experiment by counting the number of visual meteors in the sky. Although the particles that cause visual meteors are generally much larger than the ones likely to be captured in the xerogel collectors, scientists would like to correlate the rate of visual meteors with the micrometeoroid flux in the stratosphere. Star Trails participants are making a valuable contribution to this research.

You, too, can participate in NASA research and science education activities by joining the Star Trails Society. Teachers and students, amateur and professional scientists, kids and grownups are all invited. Click for more information.
As the balloon rose at dusk, the video camera captured beautiful scenes of the earth, horizon, and distant clouds illuminated by the setting sun. One observer, Les Rayburn of Helena, Ala., decided to forego the Internet footage in favor of ham-operated equipment off his back porch. Using a small beam on a four-foot section of PVC pipe with a simple downconverter, Rayburn was able to watch the ATV balloon video on a black and white television.

"Even my wife seemed to enjoy watching this, and after half-an-hour or so, we had lots of curious neighbors stopping by to watch too. The cookout turned into a mini block party with ATV supplying the entertainment," Rayburn e-mailed. "We continued to watch a beautiful sunset from high above the earth and were amazed at just how much fun ATV is. In a word, I'm excited and had a ball."

NASA will launch two more weather balloons this year to capture meteoroid samples. In August, xerogel will be used to take samples of the Perseid meteoroid shower. This November, the Leonid shower is predicted to be an even better show than the much-hyped 1998 Leonid shower, and a balloon will be there to see if this prediction is correct. Both balloons will be equipped with a video camera just as in Sunday’s launch. 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.


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Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Leslie Mullen
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