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Kari Fluegel August 10,1993

RELEASE 93-063


Scientists at the Johnson Space Center this week are coordinating the collection of data and information from around the world during a rare astronomical event -- the Perseids meteor storm.

The storm -- actually debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle which passes the Earth 130 years -- is predicted to shower the Earth with thousands of tiny meteorites sometime Wednesday night. This will give astronomers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study an event that is not well understood.

In preparation for the Perseids storm, a group from the Solar System Exploration Division has outfitted an observation "command center" at which they will be collecting and analyzing information from storm watchers from around the world.

The activity is being organized in concert with the International Meteor Organization, the American Association of Variable Star Observers and other space agency and astronomy groups. It is designed to help researchers quantify the risk such events represent to present and future spacecraft operations. The last such storm occurred in 1966 when there were relatively few spacecraft in orbit.

Don Kessler, a member of JSC's Perseids watch group, said funding has been limited to study meteor storms in the past, and as a result, there is a lack of data. These storms also are difficult to predict. Kessler added that predicting meteor storms is analogous to predicting hurricanes. Weather forecasters can determine that a hurricane exists but can only guess at its path.

"We know there are clouds of debris out there, but we're not sure where they are until the Earth passes through them," he said.

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This uncertainty in predicting the storms resulted in NASA delaying the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery from August 4 to August 12 last week.

Faith Vilas, the project lead, said amateur and professional astronomers across the United States, Europe and Japan will be feeding information into the center regarding the time, location and frequency of sightings. This will allow the JSC group to determine when the storm starts and the peak activity period. The group will be getting reports in the form of visual, ionization radar and telescopic sightings, Vilas said.

Already this week, the group has received calls from organizations needing more information about the Perseids. Beginning Tuesday, the center will be manned until Thursday, Vilas said.

Each summer, during a typical Perseids shower, observers can see one or two meteorites a minute. During this storm, however, an estimated 2,500 might be seen each minute.

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