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Zeppelin NT used in California Meteorite Hunt

Airship Ventures Zeppelin NT EUREKA was used by NASA and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as part of the hunt for parts of the Sutter's Mill Meteorite in Northern California. The large meteorite, which was about the size of a mini-van, fell to earth on the morning of 22nd of April and was clearly seen in the daylight sky from Las Vegas, NV to Sacramento, CA.

The Zeppelin’s participation in the search for the meteorite was organized in just two days. Alex Hall, one of the founders of Airship Ventures, had spoken with NASA scientist Greg Schmidt about the Zeppelin NT and its capabilities while attending a lunar science conference in Berlin in late April. Schmidt emailed Airship Ventures asking if the Zeppelin was available to participate in the search shortly after the meteorite fell and the ship was ready for service, equipped with the newly certified Cineflex HD camera at McClellan Airport, Sacramento on the evening of Tuesday 2nd of May.

The airship flew for five hours on Wednesday May 3rd with a crew consisting of three observers with binoculars, two camera operators who filmed and recorded all video of interest, and one navigator who plotted the exact location of any potential impact sites.

In a phone interview with AIRSHIP journal, scientist Peter Jenniskens, who was aboard the Zeppelin, reports that they were searching for larger pieces of the meteorite which would be further along the ‘strewn field’ from the location where most ground searchers are looking for smaller pieces. (The strewn field is the area in which fragments from a meteorite impact the ground when it breaks up in the air.) Calculations have given an area 30km long by 5km wide as the most like for finding large fragments of the meteor. The Zeppelin flew along the center of the search path and the three observers visually scanned the area to each side looking for likely impact craters. When an area of interest was located, the Zeppelin would fly overhead while close-up images were taken with the camera and its exact location recorded. The cloudy condition on the day helped in the search by eliminating shadows which can be mistaken for impact craters from a distance, however, the very hilly terrain did complicate the search.

Three likely impact craters were identified during the flight, but two of these had been eliminated by ground teams at the time of the interview.

Jenniskens reported that the Zeppelin made an “ideal” observation platform, with large windows and very steady flight. He would have liked to have used if for a longer period, but the Zeppelin had to return to already scheduled passenger carrying operations.  

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