The satellite industry watched the skies carefully this week as an unusually active meteor storm crossed into the Earth's orbit, raining micro-meteors across space. The intensity of the storm increased the long odds that a multimillion-dollar "bird" could possibly be damaged by cosmic particles, hurtling at more than 150,000 miles per hour.
But the meteor showers were but a sprinkle, offering a less brilliant show than many experts had predicted.
The celestial show peaked in the early morning hours Tuesday--about 16 hours earlier than expected--with about 500 meteors visible per hour, according to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration.
"You didn't have the 10 and 20 thousand events per hour people were expecting," said Steve Blum, president of satellite consulting firm Tellus Venture Associates. "I guess it was a flop by a factor of ten. People were saying they wanted their money back."
The Leonid meteor showers occur annually in November. But this year, the cloud of cosmic dust and ice was expected to be denser than any year since 1966 when Comet Tempel-Tuttle, dragging space debris behind it, passed close to Earth. Tempel-Tuttle, which returns every 33 years, flew by in February.
Although the viewing may have been a disappointment for the stargazing public, the satellite industry is thankful the Leonids were a bust.
"It was virtually a nonevent," said Connie Beck, executive director of the Society of Satellite Professionals International. "I'm not aware of any problems with any of our member companies."
Satellite communications firms also reported no news.
"There was no damage to our satellites," PanAmSat spokeswoman Rebecca Petruck said. "In fact, the Leonids were much less significant than expected."
Most experts said the odds of a catastrophic failure from a direct meteor strike on a satellite are long. In addition to the annual Leonids, many meteor storms like the Orionids and the Persieds occur every year, but only one satellite has ever been destroyed by a meteor strike.
"There's a reason why they call it space," Blum said. "There's a lot of room up there. On the long list of things that can go wrong with a satellite, meteors are about dead last."
Solar radiation is more likely to cause damage to sensitive communications birds than meteors, experts said.
Blum said: "Cosmically, it's less of a problem than backhoes cutting through fiber optic cables."