Comet Threatens Satellites

Satellite operators reported no immediate problems on Tuesday as the Earth passed through the tail of a comet that peppered the atmosphere with tiny bits of space junk, zipping along at 155,000 mph.

While people around the world watched the beginning of the best meteor-storm light show in three decades, NASA and private satellite companies rotated their high-tech machinery to face away from the approaching debris.

The particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle move at 43 miles per second. Even a small grain can have the destructive force of a .22-caliber bullet shot at one of the world's 600-plus satellites, experts say.

The debris particles, most no bigger than a grain of sand, can bore holes in solar panels, damage lenses, blast away mirror coatings, or cause harmful electrical charges.

That created a threat to communications, satellite TV broadcasts, and military spying.

Aerospace Corp. had no reports of trouble as of early Tuesday morning, said company spokesman Greg Hughes, who was on call overnight in case of emergency.

An office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that was to orchestrate troubleshooting efforts remained unstaffed during the night.

The likelihood of a direct hit was small.

"The chances of any one satellite getting smacked by a particle is probably less than 1 in 1,000. But, on the other hand, some of these satellites are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so you do take whatever precautions you can," said Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Hubble telescope was turned away from the storm to protect lens surfaces. And the crew of Russia's Mir space station planned to wait out the worst of the storm in their emergency escape vehicle.

Most military satellites are built to withstand attack and so have better protection from the tiny meteors. NASA planned to reposition six of its 22 satellites to present a smaller target. Others were to be powered down for the worst part of the storm.

Written by Michael White


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