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U.S. military braces for meteor attack

Earth passing through the tail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle as the two orbit the sun  
November 13, 1998
Web posted at: 11:46 p.m. EST (0446 GMT)

CNN -- On Tuesday, the Earth will experience the most intense meteor shower in 30 years as the planet passes though a trail of comet debris.

While civilians around the world are waiting to enjoy the show put on by the shooting stars, the U.S. military is bracing for star wars.

That's because while the Earth's atmosphere protects the planet itself from the flying debris, satellites in orbit are vulnerable to the cloud of sand-sized meteors traveling 100 times faster than speeding bullets.

The Leonid meteor shower will happen just as the Pentagon is beefing up for a showdown with Iraq, and experts are concerned the meteors could damage spy, communication and navigation satellites.

"These are the basic backbone of our ability to carry out our military missions worldwide and warn of impending attack," explained Col. Pete Worden.

Satellite image
A satellite if hit by debris from Tempel-Tuttle's tail  

Worden will be monitoring the meteor shower from Asia, where viewing will be best.

"Over the last couple of years, there have been intensive efforts by the Air Force Space Command to assess the threat that we might have. And they've concluded there is potentially a serious threat and that we needed to take it seriously and figure out ways to mitigate that threat," he said.

The meteor show comes from a comet called Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 33 years. Each November the Earth passes through some part of the comet's long trail of dust and debris. Since Tempel-Tuttle's orbit brought it close to the Earth this year, the shower should be especially intense.

Scenes from the Perseids and the Geminids meteor showers of 1996, as videotaped by the Japan Planetarium Lab
Video of the meteor shower
2000 K / 20 sec.
714 K / 20 sec.
Animation of the Leonid meteor shower
3100 K / 43 sec.
1200 K / 43 sec.

No one knows for sure how the satellites will weather the onslaught from outer space. Experts predict the chance is about 1 percent that a satellite will get hit.

The impact could bash the satellite or form an electrical charge.

"That (charge) could travel along areas of the satellite and get into a critical component and burn it out," warned Worden.

Space Command said it has contingency plans ready in the event a satellite is damaged -- including backup satellites already in orbit.

The National Reconnaissance office, which controls U.S. spy satellites, said it's working with Space Command to monitor the storm and to act if necessary to protect U.S. national security.

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