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OH, HEAVENS! METEOR EVENT POSES THREAT TO SATELLITES.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Daily News Staff Writer

Earth is about to swoop through a trail of dust left by a passing comet, creating a shower of shooting stars more intense than any seen in three decades - and possible headaches for people using pagers, phones, TVs and any other devices that rely on satellites, scientists said Friday.

For all its spectacle, the Leonid meteor shower, as the annual event due Tuesday is called, could pose serious threats to the hundreds of satellites put in orbit since this phenomenon last produced a full-fledged meteor storm in 1966.

The dust particles are no bigger than a grain of sand but travel 100 times faster than a bullet shot from a high-powered rifle. They can rupture a satellite's skin and short-circuit its electronics.

``There's some concern in the military that you could knock out a spy satellite with a Leonid particle just prior to your planned attack of Iraq,'' said Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Likewise, the same risk exists for satellites that carry telephone, television, pager and other communications signals, he said.

Precautions are being taken. The $2 billion Hubble Space Telescope is being turned away from the hail of particles so its optics will not be damaged. Other satellites are being maneuvered so their solar panels do not take the brunt of the shower straight on. And astronauts on the Russian space station Mir will huddle in their emergency escape pod for the hour or so when the shower is most intense.

The Earth-bound are in no danger as the tiny sand-like grains encased in ice vaporize 60 miles up in the atmosphere, he said.

While the Leonids have not yet taken out a satellite or space craft, a Canadian communications satellite was disabled during the Perseid meteor shower in 1993, he said.

Scientists are hopeful that their delicate eyes, ears and switching stations in the sky will survive the Leonids. By estimate, the chances of a satellite being disabled this year are less than 1 in 1,000.

There is no doubt the shower will be intense this year, as it is every 33 years when the comet that spawns the dust trail, Tempel-Tuttle, makes its closest orbit to the sun.

On most years when the Leonids come around in November, there may be 15 to 20 shooting stars an hour. In 1966, during the last storm, it produced some 140,000 tiny fireballs an hour, but scientists say they cannot predict if it will rise to the level of a storm this year.

Unfortunately for Americans, the best viewing will be in east Asia and will reach its peak at about 11:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Still, people can expect to glimpse one to two shooting stars every few minutes in the eastern sky during the pre-dawn hours Tuesday. The shooting stars appear to emanate from the constellation of Leo, hence the name.

The meteor shower has sparked great interest among sky watchers.

``We have customers coming in everyday asking where is the best place and time to watch it,'' said Tim Hicks of Scope City, an optics and telescope retailer in Sherman Oaks. ``They're very excited. We tell them it could be big but don't get your hopes up for a storm, but it should be a good shower.''

Hicks and others say they key to viewing this spectacle is getting as far from the city lights as possible, ideally to the desert or mountains: ``Get a lawn chair, sit back, relax and keep your eyes open,'' he said.

A higher-than-usual number of shooting stars will also be visible in the early morning Monday and Wednesday.

A heavy Leonid shower and possible storm is also expected next year, although the best viewing then will be from Europe. After that, the comet's orbit begins to move away from the Earth.

``It's either this year or next or pack it in for the next two millennia,'' Yeomans said.

CAPTION(S):

Box

BOX: NATURE`S FIREWORKS COMING

Every November, a swarm of shooting stars called the Leonids appears. Astronomers expect they may be especially active this year.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 14, 1998
Words:704
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