Volume 92, Issue 21

Thursday, October 8, 1998

far out


Western focuses on universe

By Ian C. Robertson
Gazette Staff

On Nov. 17, Western researchers will be watching a real-life version of Armageddon.

On this date, the Leonid meteoroid stream will hit earth, spawning the most severe and potentially dangerous storm in the last 32 years, said Paul Brown, a PhD student in physics and astronomy at Western. This year's storm is more hazardous to us here on earth because it could affect any one of 600 satellites, he explained.

A team of researchers from Western are heading to Mongolia and Australia on a $1 million venture to observe one of the least understood threats of our time, Brown said. "The full impact this meteor storm will have on satellites is impossible to predict because it's the first one of the modern space age."

Bill Bridger, VP-research at Western, said the university's ground-breaking role in understanding the Leonid storm has world-wide significance. "It has huge military and economic implications and Western is helping the world deal with potentially devastating effects."

Though the meteors are only the size of a grain of sand, they are travelling at 72 kilometres per second and could shoot right through a satellite or hit it with an electronic plasma field sending lightening over the satellite, killing it, Brown said.

The meteor field is millions of square kilometers coming off the trail of a comet that passed earth last Nov. 17, Brown said. He added the storm's potentially serious effects are unknown.

"Meteor showers occur five or six times a year but good ones, like this is supposed to be, only come around a couple times a century," said John Landstreet, an astronomy professor at Western. He added few meteors actually ever hit the ground.

Brown said Western's role is to create models of the shower which can be used to predict the effects of such storms. Real-time radar and television systems will be set up in Mongolia to send information back to Western and then out to the U.S. Air Force so they can control their satellites as the storm occurs, he said.

NASA and the U.S. Air Force have cancelled all space travel in a two-day window before and after the arrival of the asteroids because astronauts, along with millions of dollars, could be lost, he added.

After the project is completed, the equipment will be brought back to Western to form the most advanced observation system in the world to continue work with the U.S. military, Brown said.

The Leonid field is expected to enter the earth's atmosphere at 2:20 p.m. eastern standard time on Nov. 17 with the best seat being located on the other side of the world, Brown said.

To Contact The News Department: gazette.news@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998