High-Flying Students Chase Elusive Meteors


January 27, 2008 “Shooting stars” is a phrase sometimes used to describe meteors as they flash across they sky. But it could also apply to a pair of students from the Dexter and Southfield Schools whose interest in astronomy earned them a chance to work side by side with NASA scientists.

In December 2007 Ari Atinizian capped off his senior year by accompanying Ron Dantowitz (director of the Clay Center Observatory) to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. There he was to join a 14-person research team to study Ursid meteors, particles entering Earth’s atmosphere that had been shed long ago by Comet 8P/Tuttle.

To make sure scientists would be able to see the meteors when the arrived, NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens organized an airborne expedition to observe them from Gulfstream V jet circling the North Pole at an altitude of 50,000 feet. Atinizian and Dantowitz planned to use special cameras and spectroscopes to measure the size and distribution of the incoming particles.

Unfortunately, a last-minute glitch made the jet unavailable. Faced with a sudden change in plans, Dantowitz and Atinizian headed for Fremont Peak Observatory near San Francisco, where they quickly set up their gear and photographed the Ursid meteor shower throughout the night. They collected excellent images and data, and Atinizian later spent time with high-level NASA scientists — an all-around “excellent adventure” he’ll long remember.

Danielle Townsend, a Southfield School senior, sets up the instruments she used to record meteors from a research jet.

Waiting in the wings was Danielle Townsend. Having studying at Southfield since kindergarten, she accompanied Dantowitz to California two weeks later for another “meteor run” with NASA scientists. This time the mission was to determine whether an annual meteor shower called the Quadrantids resulted from the breakup of a comet less than 1,000 years ago, and whether Earth would fly through the resulting stream of particles. She assisted Dantowitz in constructing and deploying CCD cameras for meteor spectroscopy to study how the meteoroids break apart and release their volatile minerals.

The mission’s 14-member team departed on the Google Gulfstream jet from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California in the early morning of January 3, 2008. They flew over Alaska to the North Pole at an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet and at speeds reaching Mach 0.8.

Upon the jet’s return after 12 hours of darkness, Danielle worked with Dantowitz to analyze the data collected. Her efforts yielded some of the best spectra of the entire mission, and her contributions were an important part of a research paper published later that year.

© 2014 Clay Center Observatory at Dexter Southfield