Michael Schmidhuber is a man with a mission. Flying high above the clouds,
his task is to capture video images of thousands, possibly tens of
thousands, of shooting stars.
Michael has been enlisted by the ESA Space Science Department in ESTEC
(Netherlands) to participate in an international project to study the
famous Leonid meteor shower. If all goes well, he should be able to witness
one of the most majestic sights in nature - a meteor storm to rival the
most glorious of man-made firework displays.
Over a period of four nights around the predicted peak of meteor activity,
he will climb aboard a specially equipped NASA Boeing 707 with scientists
from the United States and Europe for the photo opportunity of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Michael has been given a full research programme, so he
won't have much time to admire the view.
"There are windows in the ceiling of the aeroplane through which we can
point our cameras," said Michael. "The cameras will be fixed to a kind of
rail so that they can stand alone to take video images of the shower."
In order to avoid getting a stiff neck, Michael will be given a useful
little gadget to wear on his head.
"The view of the night sky seen in my camera will be fed to a Video Head
Display so that I can see everything in the camera's field of view," he
explained. "We say what we see, then someone notes it down, and every 15
minutes or so the meteor count is forwarded to a NASA ground station."
Counting meteors is an important job. Although most meteors are no larger
than a grain of sand, the Leonids travel so fast (40 times faster than a
rifle bullet) that if they plough into a satellite they can cause serious
damage. The results from Michael's vigil will be fed to satellite operators
around the world so that they can take measures to protect their satellites
if they see a storm building.
After a rehearsal on 15-16 November, the work will start in earnest the
following night. However, the most exciting time of all will come on 17-18
November, when the number of meteors is expected to reach its peak.
"Our observations will last much longer on this night," said Michael. "The
plane will fly against the Earth's rotation so that we stay in darkness for
the longest time possible."
So how does he feel about his mission to catch a shower of falling stars?
"Although I'm a keen amateur astronomer, I've never done anything like this
before," he admitted. "However, I'm used to counting meteors and know what
to look for."
"Curiously, I've never actually seen the Leonids," he added. "I looked last
year, but the cloud cover was too bad."
If you want to read about Michael's adventures, extracts from his diary
will be published on this Web site during each day of the Leonid meteor