Perseid meteor shower on August 13, 2011, captured by NASA astronaut Ron Garan from the ISS (Credits: NASA/Ron Garan).

The annuyal Draconid meteor shower, expected by the first week of October, raises concern about possible damage to spacecrafts orbiting Earth, or even to the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. Small meteoroid impact in LEO are quite common, and the related mechanical damage, which are mitigated with proper shielding, are well studied and understood.  But hypervelocity impacts generate also plasma, a phenomenon which has been reproduced on the ground using accelerators. Plasma can create radio frequency emission, causing upsets in the electronic equipment that can result, in the worst cases, in the loss of a spacecraft. According to Sigrid Close, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at  Stanford University in California, several electrical anomaly have been detected by bombarding spacecraft material inside a vacuum chamber. Such anomalies include electrical charge, plasma production and radio frequency. Close said that the radio frequency appears to be very strongly dependent on speed: meteoroids travel almost an order of magnitude faster than orbital debris. “I would say that there are many unexplained anomalies on orbit that are loosely associated with plasma or electrostatic discharges that may be caused by meteoroid impacts,” Close said. A spacecraft which was probably lost due to an electrical glitch associated with meteoroid impact is ESA’s Olympus satellite, which suffered a gyroscope failure during the Perseid meteor shower of 1993.


About the author

Andrea Gini

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Andrea Gini is a content strategy consultant specialized in companies of the space sector. He is founder of Space Safety Magazine, where he held the position of Editor-in-Chief until March 2015. Between 2011 and 2013 he worked in the European Space Agency in the Independent Safety Office, which overviews the utilization of the International Space Station. He previously worked as Software Developer, IT Consultant, and trainer of Java-related technologies. Andrea holds a BSc and an MSc in computer science from the University of Milano, a Master in Communication of Science from the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste and a MSc in Space Studies from the International Space University.