Subj: NASA preparing for biggest meteor storm in 35 years
Date: 10/2/01 7:10:34 AM Pacific Daylight Time

Sept. 29, 2001

NASA preparing for biggest meteor storm in 35 years

By Kelly Young

CAPE CANAVERAL - If satellites could duck and cover, Nov. 18
might be the time to do it. That's when the worst meteor
storm in 35 years is expected to hit.

But from the ground, the storm will appear as beautiful
streaks of light in the night sky, perhaps as many as 2,000
per hour.

Under dark skies on a normal night, it is possible to see
four to five meteors an hour, said Bryan Craven, an officer
at the Brevard Astronomical Society.

This year's Leonid meteor storm could be a treat for
skywatchers, but there's a 1-in-1,000 chance that they could
strike a satellite.

The tiny meteors, the size of dust or grains of sand, are
left over from the tail of comet Tempel-Tuttle, which swings
through the inner solar system every 33 years.

When the dust burns up in the atmosphere, it leaves a light
streak, or a shooting star. In the early morning of Nov. 18,
North American skywatchers may see dust left over from when
the comet swung by Earth in the 18th century.

The riskiest aspect of the meteors isn't their size, but
their potential for shorting out a satellite, said Bill
Cooke at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

When a meteor zipping along at 40 miles per second hits an
object, it creates a tiny cloud of ions, or charged
particles. That charged cloud could interfere with a
satellite's electronics, Cooke said.

This was the case in 1993 during the Perseid meteor shower
when the European Space Agency's Olympus communications
satellite lost control.

But many satellites probably will do nothing different.
Turning a camera or other instruments off may do more harm
than good.

"It's always risky doing things with satellites," said
Cooke, who analyzes the threat meteors pose to satellites.
"Once it's up there, people like leaving them up there and
doing their thing."

Two of NASA's largest space assets, the Hubble Space
Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, will try to
minimize damage by turning their rear ends into the incoming

NASA never launches a shuttle during a meteor storm. But
since the Leonids only will last a day or two, it probably
won't affect the scheduled Nov. 29 launch of space shuttle
Endeavour. And the International Space Station should be
safe because of its shielding, Cooke said.

The Leonids, called so because the meteors appear to come
out of the constellation Leo the Lion, produce a meteor
shower every year. A meteor shower typically means one
meteor every minute or so. But a meteor storm can mean
thousands of meteors an hour.

"It should be a pretty good show," said Bob Lunsford, visual
coordinator for the American Meteor Society.