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Space storm alert as comet cometh

Space shuttle flights have been cancelled and astronauts in the International Space Station are battening down the hatches this week in anticipation of the most violent meteor storm in decades.

The greatest risk is to expensive communications equipment which is among the 600 active satellites orbiting the Earth. NASA, the American space agency, has already taken steps to protect the giant Hubble Space Telescope, which is in the path of thousands of meteors hurtling through space at about 250,000 km/h.

The cosmic firework display will begin mid-week as the Earth cuts across the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle and into the blizzard of meteors it trails in its wake. It should peak by next weekend.

Parts of the Earth are likely to witness a spectacular light show as up to 15,000 meteors an hour burn up on entering the atmosphere. But, for the hundreds of pieces of delicate machinery in orbit, the flying rocks present a real hazard.

According to NASA, the most vulnerable satellites are those used by television companies in "geosynchronous" orbits 33,000 kilometres up. These will be exposed to the densest part of the comet's debris.

Comet Temple-Tuttle is basically a huge ball of primordial ice and dust believed to have been orbiting the sun for thousands of years.

Following a path that takes it out beyond the planet Uranus, Comet Temple-Tuttle is disintegrating and leaving clouds of debris in its wake. Each year the Earth crosses its path, triggering an annual meteor shower known as the Leonids, which typically features a "shooting star" every few minutes. This year, however, the Earth will cut across an especially dense part of the debris trail, and astronomers are predicting a 1,000-fold increase in the meteor rate.

According to Dr Duncan Steel, a space impact expert at the University of Salford, northern England, the result could be a meteor storm at least as violent as that produced by Comet Temple-Tuttle in 1966, when the skies in some parts of the world were lit up with 5,000 meteors falling in just 20 minutes.

Each tiny Leonid meteor will pack a punch 100 times greater than its equivalent weight in high explosive, and could wreck the solar power cells and electronics of orbiting satellites. In 1993 a meteor impact destroyed the stabilisation system of the Olympus satellite.

To protect the Hubble telescope, NASA engineers have swung it around to keep its mirror pointing away from the meteors and adjusted its huge solar panels so they present the smallest possible target.

All shuttle flights have been grounded until early December, by which time the Earth will be well away from the comet. The three astronauts aboard the International Space Station are preparing for their final space walk tomorrow until the storm has passed.

And intelligence chiefs are prepared for interruption of service from spy satellites relaying images from Afghanistan.

The Telegraph, London

-- Martin Thompson (, November 11, 2001


Here's the link to NASA's article

-- Sally Strackbein (, November 12, 2001.

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