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Insurers appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude to the threats of a looming meteor storm, while some space experts are warning of potentially extensive damage to satellites.
Next month's Leonid meteor storm is expected to take place over a two-day period; activity will be at its highest on Nov. 17. As the earth and Comet Tempel-Tuttel get close in the middle of the month, particles released from the comet will stream into the earth's atmosphere, creating shooting stars.
The last time the Leonids put on a grand display, in November 1966, watchers counted almost 100,000 meteors each hour. Although Tempel-Tuttel orbits the sun every 33.25 years, astronomers and space scientists anticipate an impressive visitation this year, and next year also could result in a large meteor storm.
Compared with 1966, the big difference this year is that the amount of space hardware orbiting the earth -- and potentially vulnerable to the meteoroids traveling at 71 kilometers (44 miles) per second -- has rocketed since the Leonids last passed this way. At least 320 commercial satellites are in space providing services to the earth, many times the number in orbit in the 1960s.
Satellite operators admit they are not sure just what degree of risk the Leonids pose, so many are taking damage limitation measures to reduce the exposures.
Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co. Ltd. in Hong Kong has decided to "take precautions to safeguard our satellite fleet against the Leonid storm to ensure no interruption of traffic," it said in a statement.
These precautions include changing the angle of certain satellites' solar arrays to minimize the surface exposed to the speeding particles -- generally smaller than the width of a human hair -- and having staff at headquarters during the storm to deal with any problems that may arise.
The Washington-based International Telecommunications Satellite Organization is taking similar precautions. Most of Intelsat's 20 geosynchronous satellites have solar arrays that will be angled away from the direction from which the meteoroids are coming. A spokeswoman for Intelsat said she is confident that its operational traffic most likely will not be affected by the meteor storm because the solar arrays will only slue, or move, between 10 degrees and 12 degrees for two to three hours.
"It won't affect the service at all," she said. "The satellites will still be getting power from the sun, and the antennae will always be facing the earth." Moving the solar arrays will not prevent them from getting sufficient power -- they can operate during a solar eclipse using batteries but are not expected to need them during the Leonid storm.
Extra satellite controllers and on-call engineers will be on full alert at the height of the storm.
Intelsat predicts the likelihood of mechanical damage caused by the meteoroids hitting the satellites' structure or components at less than 0.02%. However, there is also the risk of damage from electrostatic discharge as meteoroids colliding with a satellite ionize and form a plasma cloud. To lessen the chances of ESD interrupting transmission, Intelsat plans to turn off certain satellite modes that could be adversely affected by ESD.
PanAmSat Corp. of Greenwich, Conn., is confident the Leonids will not pose a danger to its 16 geostationary satellites. It has predicted the possibility of a collision between one of its satellites and a Leonid particle as "extremely low." In addition, its satellites have on-board shielding to protect them from collisions. At the same time, the direction of the solar arrays relative to the meteoroids also will help lower the chances of collision.
Gloucester, Ontario-based Telesat estimates the probability of significant damage to a satellite by a Leonid meteor storm to lie in the region of 0.00075% to 0.000000375% and emphasizes that even if a meteoroid penetrates a satellite's body panel, it will not necessarily result in serious damage. More vulnerable areas on the satellite include propellant tanks and wiring harnesses. Although solar arrays and communications antennae are not especially at risk, Telesat will be reorienting the solar arrays to reduce the area exposed during the storm.
Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense in the United States are taking heed of the Leonid threat. The space shuttle will be grounded during the meteor storm, and the Hubble space telescope will be rotated so its mirrors are shielded from the meteoroids.
According to the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., the threat to satellites from the 1998 storm is "minimal," with damage most likely coming from ESD damaging on-board electronics. It recommends satellite operators have a contingency plan in place should a spacecraft sustain damage.
In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science earlier this year, William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, along with a physicist and a scientist, described the upcoming Leonid storm as "the largest (meteoroid) threat ever experienced by our critical orbiting satellite constellations."
Although they did not think a large number of satellites would be knocked out, they warned of the threat of ESD damaging electronic circuitry and causing the crafts to fail.
In contrast, space insurers appear to be taking a relaxed attitude toward the Leonids.
"It's just part of the risk we take," said a space underwriter. "The risk of a satellite getting hit by a meteorite sufficiently hard to damage it is far less than a satellite going wrong on its own. . .it will need a reasonable-size meteorite to hit it in a vulnerable spot to damage it."
What's more, a number of satellites may not be covered, as in-orbit insurance sometime is not bought beyond the early years of operation, when the satellite is thought to be most vulnerable.
Nevertheless, some insurers bought reinsurance for Leonid damage because the rates were so low it made commercial sense, according to another space underwriter. Nobody really knows what is going to happen, the underwriter said.
Scientific estimates indicate that the upcoming Leonids meteor storm will approximately double the risk of a meteor hitting a satellite, said Giovanni Gobbo, director of the space department at Assicurazioni Generali S.p.A. in Trieste, Italy. "And only a couple of satellites have been hit in history" by meteoroids, he added.
Even if a satellite is hit, the collision may not be with a vital part of the craft, and Generali says that it believes that the probability of loss is so low that reinsurance specifically for the Leonids event is unnecessary, Mr. Gobbo observed.
But satellite operators and insurers should be aware that the European Space Agency satellite Olympus was destroyed in 1993, probably by a meteoroid shower, warned Udo Martinsohn, a member of the board at Munich, Germany-based Bayerische Ruckversicherung A.G.
Scientific calculations show that the maximum probability of one of the 200 or so geostationary satellites being hit in a Leonid shower is about 2%, said Mr. Martinsohn. But this year's shower is not expected to be as intense as in the past and the meteoroids are approaching from a fairly benign direction, so the probability drops to less than 0.2%, he said. Bavarian Re's worst-case scenario, assuming total losses, predicts the meteoroid shower will take out four satellites.
Most of the geostationary satellites are insured, with a total value of 40 billion deutsche marks ($24.4 billion), said Mr. Martinsohn, with a single satellite worth up 500 million deutsche marks ($305 million). "And Bavarian Re is participating in most of the satellite insurance," he said. "The loss of one satellite could cost Bavarian Re up to 20 million deutsche marks ($12.2 million)," and the reinsurer is concerned that the failure of several satellites could lead to a breakdown in worldwide communications.
Mr. Martinsohn explained that the risk of satellite failure has been substantially reduced because of the angle of the solar arrays. "We think the. . .largest probability is partial losses, so if a satellite is hit, it will not be taken totally out, but some part of the electrical energy will be taken out," said Mr. Martinsohn. This would mean the total capacity of the satellite could be reduced between 5% and 10%, which likely could be accommodated by reserve units in the satellites.
Delbert Smith, a partner with Washington-based law firm Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, said the insurance industry is being far too complacent. After spending a lot of time with space technology experts, including U.S. Defense Command and the Aerospace Corp., Mr. Smith said he believes the danger from the Leonids is high.
"My best guess is there is a good possibility that between three and five communications satellites will be damaged," he predicted.
The difficult part is predicting the degree of damage, he said, which may range from minimal to catastrophic. From the insurance industry's point of view, the situation is serious because it is a two-year event, not a one-year event.
It could be that insurers feel they will not be responsible for Leonids-related losses because they are a foreseeable event, particularly if the satellite operator failed to take any risk mitigation steps, said Mr. Smith, though it seems that a number of policies do cover the risk, he added.
Satellite underwriters have refused to comment on policies being triggered by Leonids-related losses, though Generali's Mr. Gobbo noted it may be difficult to determine whether a satellite failure was due to a meteoroid collision, other debris hitting the satellite or malfunctioning systems, among possible causes.
From the satellite operators' point-of-view, loss of service if the satellite fails and back-up systems are not in place could prove disastrous, affecting numerous systems from telecommunications to banking, Mr. Smith pointed out. "This is such a serious situation for the insurance industry," he said.
But Mr. Gobbo disagreed that the situation is potentially so dire. "We are much more concerned and afraid by new technology and failures than meteorites," he said. The probability of a satellite failing because of technology is a greater risk compared with meteoroid collision, he said, and the biggest concern at the moment is the low premiums and high losses in the satellite insurance market.
"We are limiting our exposures, and therefore our presence in the market is less significant," said Mr. Gobbo. The loss experience from the early 1980s, when Generali first became involved in satellite insurance, has been positive, "but that is not due to the events of the last two years," he said.
Insured satellite losses in the first nine months of this year have reached $800 million, said Bavarian Re's Mr. Martinsohn, double that posted for the same period last year and slightly more than the premiums received for the period.
"The market for this year is in loss already," he said, and a serious loss could