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Meteor storm from passing comet could threaten spacecraft

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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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Meteor showers

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, space.com reports. His computer predictions are for a rate of several hundred meteors an hour visible from any one spot on October 8 next year.

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.

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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.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

IN PICTURES: Meteor showers

Paul Sutherland blogs at Skymania News

View all of Skymania News's posts on the Monitor.

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