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Leonid MAC 1999:
Day 8 (November 18):
Primary Mission Night and the Azores

The ARIA took off at 1:01 a.m. (local time), with the FISTA just a few minutes ahead of us. Klaas and I had stood outside the aircraft about 45 minutes before take off to try and look for meteors, but there was just so much light pollution at the airport; however, as we climbed into the sky we were informed by the pilots that meteors were already falling.

As soon as we reached 10 thousand feet, the seat belt lights went off and we all scrambled to set up the equipment. I think we were done in record time. The first member of our group began observing shortly after 1:30 and I was the second to go online shortly after 1:35 a.m. (23:35 UT on the 17th). During the last few months, I had corresponded with Robert McNaught and David Asher on several occasions. I had even supplied observations from 1869 that got McNaught all excited because it confirmed a prediction made by their model within 5 minutes. Now we were about 2.5 hours from their predicted maximum of 1999. What would we see?

By 23:50 UT several of my team were already detecting over 10 meteors every 5 minutes. The numbers were slowly rising and by 00:40 we were over 20 meteors every 5 minutes.

I should point out here that I felt a little guilty. Here I was flying over the Mediterranean Sea looking at an area of sky measuring 20x25 degrees and with a limiting magnitude of 9! My group was certainly seeing more meteors than anyone on the ground could expect to see at this time.

On the left, Matt Lacey (Stanford University) sits in front of his laptop which is analyzing signals from the camera to his left that does Near-UV spectroscopy of meteor trains. On the right, Klaas Jobse in the distance is setting up one of the Flux Measurement light intensified cameras, while one of the Japanese scientists sets up the light intensified High-Definition TV cameras in the foreground. Photograph by Gary W. Kronk.

Anyway, I personally continued seeing just over 20 meteors every 5 minutes until 1:05. During the next 5 minute period I saw 40 meteors. I took my first break between 1:10 and 1:15. It was only 5 or 6 minutes in length. I wanted to hurry so that I didn't miss the maximum. I resumed observations at 1:20. I detected 24 meteors during the next 5 minutes, and then beginning at 1:25 it started. The next half hour was incredible as the numbers just kept rising. The 5-minute interval between 1:25 and 1:30 produced 96 meteors in my field of view. In the 5-minute intervals that followed I saw 141, 118, then 64. I actually began doing some adjustments on my headset at this time which also disrupted my next 5 minute session. At 1:50 I was fully operating again and noticed 198 during the next 5 minutes and that was followed by an incredible 270 between 1:55 and 2:00! During the 5-minute intervals following 2:00 I saw 98, 168, 166, 140, and 129. I was finally back below 100 by 2:25, but another burst of 142 was seen between 2:35 and 2:40. The numbers steadily fell thereafter. I was permanantly below 70 every 5 minutes by 2:55, and below 30 every 5 minutes by 3:20. The period ending at 4:00 was the last time I saw more than 12 in a 5 minute period. The rollercoaster ride was coming to an end, yet we still had over 2 hours remaining. With the number of meteors having dwindled to almost nothing, the stress of having staring at meteors through the headsets began setting in around 5:00 UT. Between that time and 6:40 when the final observations ended, it was rare for more than two of the six stations to be operated at any one time. There were numerous people already buckled into their seats and sound asleep.

This is a frame capture from one of the video tapes obtained during the mission. It obviously shows two nice meteors, but there is also the twisted remains of a train left by another Leonid just a few minutes earlier. The train is the smoky trail stretching from the left to the right across the center of the image. Image from Leonid MAC 99.

This image was captured by the webmaster from a copy of the Leonid MAC 99 tapes obtained during the mission. The image shows one of the brightest meteors seen during the evening. Its explosion lit up the sky. Click on the image to view an animated gif of the event. The download size is about 1 MB.

I am not sure of the time we landed at Lajes AFB in the Azores, but it must have been around 7:00 a.m. local time. We were ushered off the planes by U. S. Air force personnel stationed at Lajes and into a press conference room. Michael and I were interviewed by Stars and Stripes. Our military escorts seemed as excited as we were, as they were asking us lots of questions as they walked with us to the conference and, later, to the buses. They were friendly with a good sense of humor.

Following the conference we were issued our room keys and told we could put our luggage away before breakfast. I opened the door to my room and saw someone elses luggage inside. I thought, "Oh, no more private rooms." Then I saw there was only one bed. I told one of the soldiers who had been helping us. As I told here some of the other soldiers began asking if the other person in the room was pretty. I told them it was a guy and said "It's not going to happen!" The soldier I asked said she would take care of everything. So I went to eat with the others. Afterwards the soldier personally drove me to the Mid-Atlantic Lodge where I was to stay. I went to sleep at 10:00 a.m. local time.

I woke up at 3:00 p.m., not because I had had enough rest, but because someone was using my shower. I woke up very quickly and just layed in bed waiting to see what was going to happen. The shower stopped, and shortly thereafter water started running in the sink. After about 10 minutes I heard a latch on my bathroom door move and then another door close. After a few more minutes I went to check out my bathroom and saw another door on the other wall with a sign that said latch the door when in use and unlatch before you leave. Interesting.

Unfortunately, I missed the bus to Praia, which left at 3:00. Dinner wasn't until 7:00, so I had plenty of time. I got cleaned up and dressed. Very quickly I got board watching a television with only one channel. At 5:00 I went outside with my cameras to see if I could photograph anything without having the flightline in the way. Nothing looked promising, partly because I was afraid security would see me. Just then Colonel Pete Worden pulled up in a Taurus station wagon. He recognised me from the ARIA since he flew with us the previous night. I told him I wish the military wasn't so strict about the flightline when the scenery was a beautiful as this. He said he was about to take a drive and said I was welcome to come along. I said "Yes." We drove to Praia. It was a beautiful town--extremely clean as if everything had just been painted. I filmed a lot. The Colonel walked inside one church and asked the caretaker if we could come inside and let me film the interior. Even though there were people in praying, he said we were very welcome and said to take all the pictures I want. The church was 550 years old and there was gold in several places. After we left we walked to a shopping area. The streets and store windows were all decorated for Christmas. I decided to shop for Karen and the boys. The first place we walked into we met two of the mechanics for the ARIA. They said they had taken a taxi and the Colonel offered them a ride back when they were ready. We finally got back to our hotel rooms around 6:30.

The buses picked us up to take us to dinner around 7:00. The dinner was at a local golf course. The food was Portuguese and wine. Although I passed on a few items that were basically unidentifiable, I did find plenty to eat. I did try the wines, but none tasted particularly good, so I stayed with the water.

After dinner we all went back to our rooms to prepare to leave for the last mission night. Since my room was in a building far from everyone else's Klaas said I could bring my gear over to his room and we could visit a while. That was good, since I was afraid I'd fall asleep. Klaas showed me photographs of his home and observatory.

Go to Day 9--November 19

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