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November meteor storm may `sandblast’ satellites

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A spectacular meteor storm will ignite the heavens in mid-November, possibly "sandblasting" satellites and threatening everyday services from cell phones to TV shows to data communications.

The last great meteor barrage came in 1966, when space satellites were far less common - and far less essential to everyday life. Back then, thousands of meteors per minute shot across the North American sky.Today, the skies are jammed with satellites that aid in weather forecasting, relay data communications and TV signals, and enable military surveillance.

The world's satellite network is a juicy target for the blistering celestial rain.

Although the meteors are smaller than grains of sand, they travel tremendously fast - more than 40 miles per second, equivalent to a 10 second flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As a result, they could knock out or disrupt some satellites' delicate electronics.

"This meteoroid storm will be the largest such threat ever experienced by our critical orbiting satellite constellations," William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo in Los Angeles, told the House Science Committee on May 21.

The 1966 storm appeared over continental North America, but this year's main aerial assault will be visible from Japan, China, the Philippines and other parts of east Asia, and possibly Hawaii.

Scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., hope to study the shower from aircraft flying out of Okinawa, says Ames principal investigator Peter Jenniskens. They hope to broadcast live TV images of the shower over the World Wide Web.

The "Leonid" meteor shower is so named because the meteors appear to emanate from the direction of the constellation Leo. Actually, the shower is a cloud of rocky particles orbiting the sun.

Earth crosses the cloud's path every Nov. 17 and 18. At that time, amateur astronomers enjoy seeing the "Leonids" zip across the sky, sometimes several per minute.

But every 30-plus years, our planet crosses a particularly dense part of the Leonid cloud. So the "shower" becomes a "storm," with up to 40 meteors per second and sometimes 50,000 per hour.

NASA plans to turn the Hubble Space Telescope away from the storm so meteors that hit the giant orbital telescope will miss its super-delicate mirror, says NASA spokesman Don Savage.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.