Meteor storm 'will be worst since 1966'


Mar 11, 2001
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Meteor storm 'will be worst since 1966'.

Published: October 8, 2001.

Mark Henderson,
Science Correspondent.

Global communications could be disrupted next month by the most severe meteor storm to strike the Earth since the beginning of the satellite age.

An unusually dense shower of space dust will bombard the planet in the early hours of November 18, producing a spectacular display of shooting stars but also threatening thousands of satellites with short-circuits.

This year’s Leonid meteor shower, which happens annually as the Earth passes through debris left behind by a comet, will be the most severe since 1966 and easily the worst since more than a handful of satellites have been present in orbit, scientists predict.

Even though each particle of dust from the Tempel-Tuttle comet weighs less than a milligram, the particles travel at such high speeds that a direct hit on a satellite would have a devastating effect, producing a cloud of charged gas that would short its electrics.

The risk of such an impact for each individual satellite is small — about one in 1,000 — but with several thousand satellites orbiting the Earth, it is highly probable that at least a handful will be disabled or knocked out. Communications, television, weather, science and military spy satellites could be affected.

There will be a big compensation for stargazers, however, bringing the best chance to see shooting stars in more than three decades.

When the Earth enters the cloud, about 10,000 meteors an hour will be visible in the sky, compared with the 20 to 30 that are normally seen during the Leonid showers.

The best places in the world to view the event will be the United States and eastern Asia, but experts are divided over whether the show will be visible from Britain. One group in the United States has calculated that about 100 to 150 meteors per hour should be present in the skies of Western Europe, but a British team thinks this unlikely.

There will be another opportunity to see a big Leonid shower next year and astronomers agree that Britain will see it then. The threat to satellites will also be repeated. The Leonids are so called because they always appear in the sky in the position occupied by the constellation Leo.

Some operators will be able to minimise the chances of losing their satellites by putting them into an orbit away from the side of the Earth on which the Leonids will strike.

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