(meteorobs) Air Force Space Command Prepares To Weather Leonid Meteor Shower

Air Force Space Command News Service

Released: 10 Nov 1999

AFSPC prepares to weather Leonid meteor shower
By Nicole VanNatter, Air Force Space Command Public Affairs

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFPN) -- Air Force satellites are expected
to sail through the potentially worst meteor shower in 33 years; however,
Air Force Space Command people are not leaving anything to chance.

AFSPC and other national agencies have been diligently working on a host
of plans and operations that will ensure critical communication,
navigation and surveillance systems stay operational.

This year marks what is likely to be the last in the 33-year cycle of the
comet Tempel-Tuttle that produces what is commonly known as the Leonid
meteor shower. The height of the Leonid meteor shower will be the evening
of Nov. 17 in most of North America.

Tempel-Tuttle has been orbiting the sun opposite the Earth for nearly
2,500 years, but only poses a potential threat to the Earth three years
out of each 33-year cycle said Lt. Col. Don Jewell, AFSPC's deputy chief

The comet travels 43 to 45 miles per second, relative to Earth's orbit,
leaving a huge trail of dust through which the earth travels when their
paths cross. The Temple-Tuttle is one of the fastest comets known to man.

The increased speed makes the comet's particles more dangerous to space
satellites. The debris trail of the comet contains particles from 0.04 to
0.40 of an inch in size.

Radiation hardening gives military satellites greater protection than
civilian satellites from the flying debris. Although the comet does
contain particles up to 0.40 of an inch in size, the chances of one of
those hitting a satellite are very small, said Jewell.

"If one of those hit a satellite, it would be like a bullet hitting a
satellite and certainly it would damage it," said Jewell. "We don't
anticipate that happening, but we have to plan for it."

And planning is exactly what's been going on since last year's Leonid

"This year we are focusing on refining the Leonid plan that was developed
last year," said Lt. Col. Doug Hine, 14th Air Force's chief, space
operations branch. "We took lessons learned and ensured satellite and
ground systems are prepared to weather the storm."

The Leonid storm of 1966 was the last time the meteor shower impacted the
nations' space assets. The potential harm was minimal though because
America only had 50 or 60 satellites in orbit then, said Jewell.

The real concern came 32 years later, in 1998, when the United States had
several hundred military satellites in orbit, operating everything from
early missile warning to the Global Positioning System.

"Essentially, it was a non-event," said Jewell. Three civilian satellites
were damaged, but all military space assets were left unharmed.

There is not expected to be any damage to military satellites this year
either, said Jewell, but the Air Force is prepared for the worst.

The Air Force began planning for the 1998 Leonid storm a full year in
advance. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were allocated for Leonid
preparation, but the money ran out and the analysis of the data could not
be completed, said Hine.

This year, the Air Force and other sister agencies are poised to spend $2
million to proactively protect U.S. space assets, said Hine.

Special electro-optical video equipment will be set up at sites in Hawaii,
Florida, the Canary Islands, Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and
at two sites in the Negev Desert, Israel, to record the storm as it
develops. The video signals go to the Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala. The center will give real-time storm warnings when

The Air Force will also monitor the storm 24-hours a day Nov. 16 through
18 through mobile multi-frequency high-frequency radar deployed in Canada.

Additionally, aircraft are being deployed Nov. 16 to perform high-altitude
observation and collect data on the Leonid storm.

"We don't want to downplay this. We plan for the worst and hope for the
best," said Hine. "Air Force Space Command has experienced and
well-trained crews who are prepared and ready to respond to any problems
that may surface during the storm."

The good news is, when Nov. 17th is over, so are the short-term Leonid
worries. "We won't have any problems with it again for about another 30
years," said Jewell.

So what's the advice for people Nov. 17? Sit back and enjoy because "it
ought to be a beautiful show," said Jewell.

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