Meteor storm threat to spacecraft

NASA experts are warning that satellites and the space station are under threat from a meteor storm predicted for next year. A seven-hour bombardment from comet debris could strike orbiting spacecraft and wreck their electronics.

A meteor outburst
A meteor outburst from another shower in 1995 (NASA)

The sand-blast is being predicted from a meteor shower called the Draconids which crosses the Earth’s orbit around the sun every October.

Most years rates are fairly low, but can soar every 13 years or so as we plough through the densest part of the stream of particles.

Rates peaked at 54,000 meteors an hour for any single observer under ideal conditions in 1933 and 10,000 in 1946.

The last major display happened in 1998, peaking at a few hundred but still the handful seen in most years.

The latest forecast of a major storm in 2011 comes from expert William Cooke, of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, reports. His computer predictions are for a rate of several hundred meteors an hour visible from any one spot on October 8 next year. (Note the claim in the comments that he is now backtracking on this prediction).

NASA are likely to reorient the international space station and Hubble space telescope to turn vulnerable areas away from the incoming sand-blast. Spacewalks will also be banned until the threat from the river of rock particles has passed.

But satellites including those providing vital services such as communications, sat-nav and TV will have to weather the storm. Apart from the physical dander from a direct strike, electrostatic discharges can fry their vital electronics.

There have previously been warnings that satellites could be damaged by a different type of storm – an outburst of activity on the Sun.

The meteor shower is called the Draconids because the meteors appear to stream in from the direction of the constellation of Draco the Dragon. But they are also known as the Giacobinids after the name of the comet that dumped them, Giacobini-Zinner.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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