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ESA scientists capture the Lion's offspring down under


The team: from left to right Joe Zender, Detlef Koschny, André Knöfel, Roland Trautner.

28-Nov-2001 After an eventful trip to the other side of the world, ESA's intrepid scientists have returned with a treasure trove of data about the 2001 Leonid meteor shower.

From their remote encampment in the Australian outback, the four-man team from the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands successfully observed many thousands of shooting stars while carrying out some groundbreaking trials of new scientific experiments.

Team leader Detlef Koschny and colleague Roland Trautner happily recounted their successful campaign to capture the Lion's offspring.

Question: Were you able to see the Leonids as you had hoped?

Koschny: We were rather nervous because the night of the predicted maximum was cloudy - the first cloudy night we had in Australia - but, fortunately, the clouds went away and we had three hours of beautiful Leonids. We saw the first Leonid fireballs through holes in the clouds - this led to quite spectacular views, since the clouds were black and basically invisible (an unknown experience to a European observer, where there are always lights to illuminate the clouds).

This striking image showing some Leonid meteors was taken on 19 November 2001 by Andrew Johnson in western Australia. (15 minute exposure using a super wide-angle lens).
(Copyright: Andrew Johnston, Australia.)

Miraculously, it slowly but steadily cleared up and one hour after midnight we had beautiful skies: the Magellanic Clouds were blazing, Canopus, Sirius and Achernar brilliant. The show started with about one bright Leonid (-2 magnitude or brighter) per minute. Most of them had orange-yellow heads and left a blueish-green trail that lasted for a few seconds. A small number showed persistent trails for half a minute or so. The highlight was a -2 mag Leonid which flew just above the southern horizon, parallel to it for about 90 degrees!

Trautner: It was a great show - amazing! The most spectacular view for me was in the morning twilight (on 19 November), when the Sun was painting the sky a cobalt blue, the bright stars and the Milky Way were still visible, and there were brilliant fireballs coming in. It was the most beautiful moment of the whole night.

We were very lucky because we had good weather at the end. There had been cloud and smoke from bush fires earlier in the night. The bush fires last for weeks - the farmers just let them burn. We could see them getting closer until they were burning near the road we would have to use on our return journey. Fortunately, the fire was already extinguished when we made our way back to Broome.

Koschny: The weather was a worry to us. There had been thunderstorms around Perth, and we were told that the weather was also bad around Wolf Crater, so we decided to camp out at a dry lake nearer Broome. We made the right decision.

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© ESA Science 2001.