Brainstorming begins as meteor shower nears

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (AP) — In November, the Earth’s atmosphere will be hit with the most severe meteor shower in 33 years, a bombardment of debris that could damage or destroy some of the nearly 500 satellites that provide worldwide communications, navigation and weather-watching.
The debris consists only of particles — some thinner than a hair and most no larger than a grain of sand — but they are hurtling through space so fast that they can have the destructive power of a .22-caliber bullet.
As a result, about 200 commercial and military satellite operators, insurers and scientists began brainstorming here Monday about what they can do to prepare, such as turning off spacecraft or turning them away from the stream of particles. The two-day gathering is called the Leonid Meteoroid Storm and Satellite Threat Conference.
“The consequences are still virtually unknown. There has not been a meteor storm since the onset of the modern space age. Nobody planned for it,” said Peter Brown, a physics and astronomy graduate student at the University of Western Ontario who advises satellite operators.
The particles, known as meteoroids, are vastly smaller than the asteroids that could one day slam into Earth, and none are expected to come anywhere near the surface of the planet when they strike this November and again in November 1999.
But before the particles burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, they could poke holes in solar panels, pit lenses, blast reflective coating off mirrors, short out electronics with a burst of electromagnetic energy, even reprogram computers, said Edward Tagliaferri, a consultant to the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit organization.
In 1993, for example, a meteor struck the European Space Agency’s Olympus satellite and destroyed its directional control, rendering it useless.
“What if you get unlucky?” Delbert Smith, a Washington lawyer who represents international networks and satellite operators, asked at the conference. “Who’s going to explain to the major corporations your satellites aren’t there anymore?”
While only a couple of satellites might get disabled — and some cost as much as $500 million — all of them will suffer surface damage, said David Lynch, a scientist with the Aerospace Corp.
Military satellites are better shielded because most are built to withstand nuclear assault. But unlike commercial spacecraft that can be turned off temporarily, military satellites “can’t afford to be off the air,” Tagliaferri said.
The Hubble Space Telescope — which suffered minor surface damage in the 1993 shower — will move to protect itself against Leonid damage by turning away from the stream of particles, an option being considered by many satellite owners.
First reported by Chinese astronomers back in 902, the Leonid meteoroid storms — so-named because they are found in front of the constellation Leo — become intense every 33 years. They occur when Earth passes through a trail of dust left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle.
Scientists aren’t sure when the heaviest showers will occur — Nov. 17, 1998, or Nov. 18, 1999.
The spectacular showers will be visible this year across the Western Pacific and Eastern Asia; the 1999 showers will be visible in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Storms last 90 minutes to two hours.
Back in 1966, when fewer than 100 satellites circled the Earth, the comet produced peak showers of 144,000 meteors each hour with no major damage. This year, with more than five times the number of circling spacecraft, some experts think the rate could be 5,000 to 100,000 an hour.
But astronomer Donald Yeomans of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., put the rate as low as 500 to 2,000 particles per hour. And Brown agreed that the rate won’t be as high as it was in 1966.