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Tuesday, November 17, 1998 Published at 19:14 GMT

An invitation to the fireworks party

Most spectacular celestial light show in decades

BBC science journalist Chris Riley has been invited to the most amazing fireworks party.

He is travelling with 40 scientists and engineers as they fly two planes directly under the Leonid meteor storm on the night of Tuesday, 17 November.

Chris Riley: We can unpick the secrets of the Leonids
This shower of shooting stars is expected to be the most spectacular celestial light show in decades.

"It's the chance of a lifetime, it really is," said Chris before he left to join the Nasa mission.

The shooting stars are actually tiny fragments of dust left in the wake of a comet called Temple-Tuttle. As the Earth passes through this space debris, the dust particles plunge into our atmosphere and burn up, producing streaks of light across the sky.

"Most of the Leonid meteors burn up quite high above our heads - about 18 km up - and we'll be flying a bit lower than that at nine or 10 km," said Chris. "It gives us a much better vantage point to look at the meteors"

Best view

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to witness the best of the storm - at about 19:45 GMT - which is why the Nasa mission has based itself at the Okinawa base in Japan.

Chris Riley: This kind of event doesn't happen very often
If the experts are right, there could be as many as 10-20 meteors a second over this area.

"The two planes will fly about 100 km apart and that will give us a nice stereoscopic view on the storm - so we can see a meteor from two different angles."

The Japanese broadcaster NHK is flying a high definition TV camera on one of the planes, mounted in the top of the aircraft to view a large proportion of the sky.

They plan to broadcast a live programme from the air during the storm and will feed the HDTV images to Nasa for worldwide broadcast on NASA select TV.

Meteor chemistry

Of greater scientific significance, the mission will also attempt to study the chemistry of the of the meteors.

"Each shooting star carries with it some secrets of its chemistry, and when it burns up it releases those secrets," said Chris.

"So, if you can photograph them, you can unpick and unravel the mysteries of the Leonids - you can tell exactly what they are made of."

BBC Science Correspondent James Wilkinson: Leonid particles are travelling at nearly 160,000 mph
The scientists will look for the tell-tale colours emitted by the meteors as they burn.

"Even with the naked eye you can see different colours, but on board these planes that Nasa is flying we've got some very sensitive equipment which can see down to 40 times as faint as the human eye can see, and in many frequencies that the human eye can't pick up."

Scientists hope this information will shed new light on the popular theory that comets and meteors "seeded" life on Earth by bringing to the planet some of the basic chemical components necessary to construct living organisms.

Other experiments will tell us more about the structure of the comet that produced the dust particles, and give us new insight into the nature of our upper atmosphere.

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In this section

Meteors over the desert

Return to mission Leonid

Hit-and-miss meteor display

Leonids arrive too early

Picture gallery: Celestial fireworks

The night the stars fell

Streams of dust

Small and dangerous

Into the light storm