Meteor Showers to Provide Rare Research Opportunity

Release Date: 
Wednesday, November 13, 2002


The 2002 Leonid meteor showers will be visible in Alaska the evening of Monday, November 18th, weather permitting. This year’s storm is forecasted to be up to two times more active than last year.

The storm will feature two peaks throughout the night. The first peak will occur from about 6:00-8:00 pm, with the maximum number of meteors of 50-100 per minute expected around 7:00 pm. The second peak will occur from about 12:30-2:30 am on November 19 in the eastern sky, reaching its maximum about 1:30 am. For best viewing results, try to block the moon from your field of vision.

Dr. Hans Nielsen of the UAF Geophysical Institute will use this rare viewing opportunity to further his research on the structure of meteors. Observing from Poker Flat Research Range in 2001, Nielsen captured high-speed images of meteors for the first time using a special camera that records at a rate of 1000 frames per second. The unique images that resulted show the formation of a parabolic, shock-like structure around the meteor that had never been seen before.

The observations recorded by Nielsen surprised the scientific community. In particular, the size of the shock-like structure was unexpectedly large considering that the meteor itself is no larger than 1 cm in size. At present, there is no explanation for the formation of the large structure.

This year, Nielsen will use the same specialized camera to attempt to capture images of the Leonid meteor storm from a DC-8 airplane over the Atlantic Ocean as part of the NASA Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign (MAC).

Based out of NASA/Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the MAC mission brings together scientists from different disciplines that have an interest in researching the Leonid meteor shower. The dual plane airborne mission guarantees good viewing weather by flying over clouds and avoiding potential low-altitude light scatter caused by dust, haze, or water vapor in the air.

The annual Leonid meteor showers are caused when Earth’s orbit encounters dusty debris left in space by the Tempel-Tuttle comet, which passes by Earth once every 33 years. This year’s viewing is rare since Earth will encounter debris trails left by the comet from two previous orbits, one from 1967 and the other from 1866, creating a particularly intense storm with two separate peaks. In fact, according to predictions there will be no better storm for another 30 years.

The MAC mission scientists are using the rare encounter with comet dust trails to help understand the societal and physical effects of meteor storms, including the possibility of future satellite malfunctions and meteor-induced chemical reactions.

A set of images, video clips and corresponding captions from the 2001 Leonid meteor shower are available electronically at The images have been posted at full resolution, and citing instructions are provided.

Hans Nielsen, UAF Geophysical Institute Associate Director and Professor of Physics: (661) 945-8771
Channon Price, UAF Physics Department Associate Professor: (907) 474-6106 or via email at
Dr. Price can be contacted via phone during the following times: Wednesday, November 13, 1:00-2:00 pm and 3:00-4:00 pm, Thursday, November 14, 2:00-5:00 pm, Friday, November 15, 12:00-3:00 pm, Monday, November 18 and beyond, call for an appointment.

Vicki Daniels, UAF Geophysical Institute Public Relations Specialist: (907) 474-5823

Information and the latest updates about NASA’s Multi-Instrument Campaign can be found online at
A site with information about the Leonid showers specific to interior Alaska can be found online at