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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This week’s Leonid meteor storm may produce more than just a brilliant celestial display, a University of Tennessee geologist said Wednesday.

Dr. Hap McSween said it could help scientists collect cosmic dust that may yield new information about the solar system and the origin of life.

NASA is launching a high-altitude aircraft Thursday to snare samples from the Leonid shower, which occurs yearly as Earth passes through a stream of particles from comet Tempel-Tuttle.

This year, Earth is going through soon after the comet has returned to enrich the stream with more debris.

That means more meteors may be visible, and it could help NASA collect meteor particles, McSween said.

“In the past, attempts to collect high-altitude particles have not been very successful,” McSween said. “But more of these interplanetary dust particles are raining down during this year’s Leonid meteor storm.

“This may improve our chances of using high-altitude aircraft to collect these particles from the stratosphere.”

McSween examines meteorites for NASA and has worked extensively on the space agency’s Mars missions.

Comet debris could contain organic compounds that might have been building blocks for life, he said.

“When a meteor comes in, these compounds are boiled out as it heats up during atmospheric passage,” McSween said. “If we can capture some of the Leonid particles before they burn up, it might tell us something about these more volatile compounds and elements that must have existed in the early solar system.”