Saturday, November 13, 1999

Leonid meteor
shower forecast

Orbiting-satellite warning posted

Hawaii will be one of the international
sites where observers will monitor
the annual phenomenon

By Helen Altonn


A "storm" of hundreds to thousands of meteors per hour may blaze across the sky during the annual Leonid shower starting tomorrow, giving some parts of the world a spectacular sight but potentially threatening satellites.

Hawaii has one of seven sites internationally that will monitor effects of the bullet-speeding meteors. They have so much energy experts say they could threaten the American Hubble space telescope and the Russian space station Mir, as well as satellites, and electronic and solar operations.

Leonid meteors streak through the sky every year between Nov. 14-20 as the Earth passes through debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle. They radiate from the constellation Leo.

Scientists are predicting intense activity next week because the Leonids generally reach a peak every 33 years. Thousands of fireballs possibly may be hurtling through the sky in prime viewing areas at the storm's peak Nov. 17, they said.


People in Europe and Africa may well have the best view, said Hawaii meteor observer Jim Bedient. "We're not in the proper part of Earth to actually see the storm itself. It only tends to last three or four hours at most."

But islanders looking to the east after midnight in dark areas may see increased activity, he said, "optimistically" estimating possibly 80 meteors an hour. Normally, there are about 30 to 40, he said.

"Historically, there has been a 'storm' of meteors every 33 years," Bedient said. In 1966, he said, 5,000 to 6,000 meteors per hour --100 per minute -- raced across the sky. Many Hawaii residents saw the phenomenon, but Bedient did not.

Joint effort

The U.S. Air Force, NASA and the University of Western Ontario in Canada are operating the Leonid monitoring program in order to protect satellites and ensure the continued operations of critical communication, navigation and surveillance systems.

Special electro-optical video equipment to record the meteor storm is being set up at Haleakala, Maui; in Florida; at the Canary Islands; on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands; and in Israel's Negev Desert. Radar stations in Greenland and Alert, Canada, also will participate, Bedient said.

The Hawaii observing team will include Bedient, who is a Federal Aviation Administration operations supervisor at Diamond Head, and Mike Morrow, retired National Weather Service forecaster. Both are members of Hawaii and American meteor organizations. Also on the team are Air Force Maj. Barry Tilton and Stuart Clifton of NASA.

Bedient said they will be at the Air Force Observatory on Haleakala observing from tomorrow through Friday. They will report information every hour to the Leonid Environment Operations Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The center will be staffed around the clock until the shower passes on Friday.

Engineers at Marshall Center will coordinate all pre-Leonid storm information and observations about the activity, intensity and potential threat to NASA and Air Force spacecraft.

Tempel-Tuttle, one of the fastest comets, travels 43 to 45 miles per second. Its speed makes its particles more dangerous to space satellites, the Air Force Space Command said. The debris tail has particles from 0.04 to 0.40 of an inch in size.

'Like a bullet'

"If one of those hit a satellite, it would be like a bullet hitting a satellite and certainly it would damage it," said Lt. Col. Don Jewell, Air Force Space Command deputy chief scientist. "We don't anticipate that happening, but we have to plan for it."

The Air Force will have extra personnel on standby to deal with any satellite irregularities that may be caused by the storm, the Space Command said.

"Satellite operators may turn off sensors, avoid commanding and controlling satellites, or reorient satellites to provide a smaller cross-section to mitigate the effects of the storm," it said.

NASA scientists plan to launch a balloon to learn more about the meteors. The balloon will record meteor images and sounds "and maybe even catch a piece of a 'shooting star,' " the Marshall Space Flight Center said.

Long-term lessons

Besides trying to protect about 600 satellites orbiting the Earth, "Monitoring the Leonid meteor stream also provides a rare look at a natural phenomenon that will continue to grow in importance as more and more satellites orbit our planet and we venture deeper into space," said Jeff Anderson of the Marshall Center's Engineering Directorate.

Bedient said he missed seeing last year's Leonid meteor shower because he was on the mainland, but the meteors were brilliant, "as bright as Venus and there were many per hour."

There's much to be gained by studying meteors, Bedient said.

"Comets are remnants of the creation of the solar system," he said. "The more we know about them, the more we can learn about how the solar system was created and what made up the early solar system.

"Some organic compounds that make up life actually may have come from comets. They could be directly related to how life came about on Earth."

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