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Living the Leonids

Living the Leonids

17 November 1999

"From here the peak was around 2200 meteors at 02:13", reported an excited Michael Schmidhuber, ESA's man aboard the international plane at 03:08 UT, calling in from somewhere over Greece to the waiting scientists gathered at ESTEC. First pictures from the two ESA science teams in Spain began to arrive at 02:39 UT. At 02:00 UT Jo Zender reported from Calar Alto: "We are now seeing more than 250 meteors per hour, more than one every half minute."

Despite cloudy skies over much of northern Europe, the 'night of the Leonids' was a novel one for ESA Science. We were joined by hundreds of people (amateur enthusiasts, professional astronomers, school classes ) - from Antarctica to Bogata - in the ESA Science live web forum.

"We had a real sense that we were part of a world-wide community sharing the joy of this natural phenomenon. As we watched the radar plots via ESA's Operations Centre (ESOC) climbing spectacularly, we were getting verbal confirmations from around the world through the chat forum, and some hurried departures from the forum as people rushed outside!", said science moderator John Zarnecki.

While the professionals used the forum to exchange real-time information such as radio frequencies, amateurs and professionals alike were able to put their questions to the panel of ESA meteor and spacecraft experts.

Participants could put their questions directly to ESA's Joe Zender and Marc Neijts of IMO/Meteorenwerkgroep, who managed to log into the forum from a small observing hut at 2200 metres in Calar Alto (CAHA).

"We had a fine display. We estimate between 600 and 100 meteors, not storm level but very impressive. It is a cold, clear night with a moderate wind, which keeps your feet cold", said Joe Zender's last report at 03:45 UT.

"It is minus 12 here" phoned in Detlef Koschny, sounding slightly muffled! "but it was great!" Detlef and Andre Knöfel loyally endured 30 minutes of telephone questions at (or rather outside) the Sierra Nevada Observatory (OSN), Spain.

The forum could also find out the latest on protection of ESA spacecraft direct from Rudiger Jehn of ESA's Operations Control Centre, who was online together with asteroid expert Thomas Mueller from ESA Vilspa. SOHO's Bernard Fleck and Paal Brekke were on line from Goddard Spaceflight Centre for much of the night and were able to report SOHO's good health.

Joining the moderators at the forum desk in the Erasmus facilities at ESTEC were Gerhard Schwehm, and Richard Marsden. Dieter Isakeit of the Manned Spaceflight Directorate was on hand to respond to questions on protection of the first elements of the International Space Station. While the designated 'expert' for each session was in the hot seat, they were backed up by colleagues from ESA's Space Science Department, including Peter Wenzel, Bernard Foing, Frans Moser and Ben Bussey. With 30 to 50 participants logged in to 'chat' at any one time, it was all hands on deck. David Whitbourn (the producer), just back from filming on location with the CAHA and OSN teams, soon found himself taking a turn at a keyboard!

Jean-Pierre Lebreton and Trevor Sanderson took a break from listening for the 'ping' of the meteors to answer questions on their new technique and caused a flurry of activity among the many radio amateurs in the forum - all recognising each other by their call signs!

Radio Recording of a Fireball    1.8 Mb WAV

Although we planned to close the forum at 01:30, the participating observers begged us to leave it open to continue to exchange their sitings. At 03:20 UT (04:20 local time)when the Science web team finally said 'good night' the messages were still flying.

"Thanks to ESA for the worldwide view" said Phil (18 November 99 1:38:35 AM)

"Thanks for your excellent science chat site during the Leonids. We at Millstone Hill Observatory...relied on your observer reports to keep up to date as to when the meteor peaks occurred." Phil Erickson, MIT Haystack Observatory, Westford, USA.

Last Update: 1 September 2019
18-Oct-2021 23:36 UT

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