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Satellites hope to shake meteor shower

A meteor shower this week threatens to damage or possibly disable multi-million dollar communications and defense satellites in space.

This week, while stargazers look skyward for a spectacular show, the satellite industry will hold its collective breath.

A rare meteor shower is expected to rain cosmic debris across the skies, potentially pelting hundreds of high-tech "birds" with tiny particles that could damage--or even disable--multi-million dollar communications and defense satellites.

Though some experts are downplaying its effects, a satellite outage could deal a blow to birds that serve radio and television broadcasting outlets or offer paging services and Internet access, among many other satellite-based communications services.

The Tempel-Tuttle comet, which crosses paths with Earth once every 33 years, last passed the planet in February leaving a fresh trail of ice and dust particles in its wake. The comet's tail, about 200,000 kilometers wide and 16 million kilometers long, creates the ensuing Leonid meteor showers.

Every November, the Earth passes through Leonid. But the debris is expected to be particularly heavy this year, due to the Tempel-Tuttle comet's recent pass, which pulled millions of meteors across the sky. The barrage--expected to peak at 150,000 meteors per hour during a three to four hour window from about 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. PST tomorrow--poses a serious threat of damage to hundreds of orbiting satellites.

"We've all got our fingers crossed," said Mark McKibben, president of the Southern California chapter of the Society of Satellite Professionals International, an industry trade association.

"The odds go up that there will be a strike on a satellite and it could lead to a catastrophic failure," McKibben said.

A Cosmic Beating
The average life span of a satellite is only 12 to 15 years, since they are constantly bombarded by loose matter while in space.

"They just take such a beating up there," said John McCarthy, a spokesman for Loral Skynet, a subsidiary of Loral Space & Communications.

Satellites suffering damage from meteors is nothing new. The effectiveness of most satellites, in fact, is reduced over time by cosmic dust. But the Leonid meteor showers are expected to be especially heavy over the next three years. Experts explain that even a grain of sand--hurtling at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour--could do significant damage to a satellite.

Some experts said the particles are expected to travel at 200 times the speed of sound--and can hit with the force of a .22-caliber bullet.

Although the meteors will arrive in greater numbers than usual, the Satellite Industry Association does not expect this year's Leonid showers to be as severe as the 1966 version.

Swiveling Solar Arrays
Most satellite companies have increased their staff size in preparation for the showers, and have mapped out contingency plans in case they need to divert capacity to another bird.

"We've stepped up those dry runs because of the meteor showers," McCarthy said. "But it's not as if we're going to get caught off guard."

Some satellite operators will also rotate their satellites' solar arrays to help avoid a direct hit. The arrays--photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity--will pivot with an edge facing the oncoming meteors to reduce the surface area exposed to the particles. The solar panels are the largest part of most satellites.

Experts say a complete satellite failure is a long shot. Nevertheless, the industry is watching the meteor showers carefully, especially after a recent setback.

In May, PanAmSat's Galaxy IV, one of 18 satellites in the company's fleet, failed leaving nearly 40 million people without paging service. After an investigation the company said it could not explain what caused the beeper outage.

PanAmSat has pegged the odds of a damaging impact from the Leonid meteors at 1 in 20,000.

"To put this in perspective based on probability statistics, a person is twice as likely to be struck by lightning than is a geosynchronous satellite to sustain a damaging impact from this storm," the company said. "We believe the probability of any damage to any PanAmSat satellite from the Leonid storm is extremely low, and we are nonetheless taking extra measures to mitigate any potential impact of the storm."

Although particles routinely pepper satellites, experts only know of one satellite has been destroyed by a meteor. In 1993, the European Space Agency's Olympus satellite was damaged when a meteor struck its navigational control system, making the bird useless.

The sheer vastness of space makes a damaging impact unlikely, experts said, yet even some remain skeptical. "It's virtually impossible, but I say that with my fingers crossed," admitted McCarthy.

The showers can be seen in the eastern skies, but will be viewed best from the Asian continent. Many Internet websites, including Thailand's Chiang Mai newspaper plan to webcast the showers.