Satellite deal that is proving pure stardust

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The Independent Online
MOST PEOPLE know about wishing on a star. Faxing or paging on a star may be less familiar.

In a little over a year, this could be possible using an unlikely sounding form of communication that involves bouncing radio signals off the debris left behind by shooting stars, or meteors.

These 'meteor-burst communications' are based on a phenomenon first discovered by radio hams in the late 1940s. Dust particles about the size of a grain of sand float around in space all the time. Every day, billions of these grains enter the Earth's atmosphere, leaving behind a trail of free electrons as they burn up. This ionised path can stretch from between 15 to 35 miles, existing on average for about a quarter of a second. The paths sit at about 55 miles above the Earth, acting as a mirror to radio signals - in effect a 'natural satellite'.

Since the 1950s, a US company, Meteor Communications Corporation, has spent around dollars 40m ( pounds 26m) developing the phenomenon into a marketable proposition. Within the next few weeks it expects to sign a pounds 13m deal with a British backer to set up a network to cover the whole of western, and parts of eastern, Europe.

The company argues that meteor-burst technology is so cheap to set up and run, 'with no costly satellite launches or space-suit maintenance and repair', that it can afford to undercut mobile communications services that rely on satellite or telephone links.

The system uses radio probes to check the sky for suitable meteor bursts. When it spots one, it seeks messages waiting to be transmitted to areas it can reach from that patch of 'sky mirror'.

According to Richard Atkins, marketing consultant to MCC, this is one-tenth of the cost of setting up an equivalent message system for Britain using conventional satellite technology.

In the US, the system has proved popular for government and military uses. In the mid- 1980s, the US mobile missile command turned to meteor burst communications, attracted by its high level of security. Their tests found it almost impossible to detect where a signal had come from, or gone to, because technicians could not predict which message would be sent when, or which route it would take.