Cosmic dust devil


November 17 and 18, many satellite engineers and communications companies will have a watchful eye on the heavens. That’s when the earth passes through this cosmic cloud of debris, causing an event called a Leonid meteor shower.

Space-based communications platforms, navigation systems, scientific experiments and military spacecraft all will face their greatest threat in two separate waves of inbound space dust traveling over 155,000 miles per hour. The particles, smaller than a grain of sand, pose no threat to the surface of earth (they will burn up in the atmosphere miles above the ground). But for satellites in orbit, they pack the same destructive punch as a bullet fired from close range.

Nobody can say for sure how many of the more-than-500 satellites currently in orbit will be affected; speculation runs the gamut from conservative warnings to doomsday predictions. The United States House of Representatives Committee on Science issued a recommendation stating, “While it is very unlikely that the storm will have any major effect on satellites, the ‘A-team’ of controllers should be on duty during the time of the storm, and operators should check the state of health of their satellites frequently, looking primarily for electrical anomalies and glitches. It was also recommended that, if possible, satellites be oriented so that sensitive components are shielded from the oncoming stream of particles, and that recovery plans be in place should there be a spacecraft system failure during the storm.”

The meteor storm of 1998 should prepare the engineers for the second wave due to hit in November 1999. The timing of that wave comes at an unsettling time—just weeks before the year 2000 (Y2K) computer glitch. Disaster could abound if Y2K has the comprehensive impact many are predicting, especially if the problem is compounded by loss of spacecraft in the Leonid meteor shower. If the meteors wreak serious damage, the resultant loss of communications will only deepen the impact of Y2K.