RF pulses from dust collisions could be killing satellites

Tiny impacts don't smash sats, but the energy they produce might break electronics

Space scientists have long known that impacts too small to pierce a craft's skin can still damage the electronics inside, by creating electromagnetic pulses. Why those pulses happen, however, is still not well understood.

Alex Fletcher of Boston University and MIT, and Sigrid Close of Stanford University reckon they've cracked that mystery: the radio emissions come from the behaviour of a plasma caused by the collision.

If a dust particle is travelling fast enough – say, between five and ten kilometres per second – it produces a shock wave that expands into the surface of its target, and material gets vaporised and ionised.

Fletcher and Close plasma simulation

Fletcher and Close believe the way the plasma expands causes electromagnetic pulses. Image: AIP Plasma Physics

The plasma starts so dense it's almost a solid, and as it expands, ions and electrons spread at different speeds (the lighter electrons move away faster). The relative velocity of the different electrical charges is what causes the brief RF pulse.

Close, the senior author of paper titled "Particle-in-cell simulations of an RF emission mechanism associated with hypervelocity impact plasmas", in the journal Physics of Plasmas, has been working on the question since 2010, when she and some colleagues first hypothesised that at least some satellite failures are caused by hypervelocity collisions.

As Fletcher says in this American Institute of Physics release, more than half of satellite electrical failures remain unexplained, which is why researchers are keen to explain the RF pulses.

There's still more work to be done, because the simulations produced higher frequencies than those boffins have to date observed.

The pair are working on refinements to their simulation, including more accurate representations of how the electrons might move, and whether dust remaining in the plasma slows down the separation of the particles. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • Liftoff at last for South Korean space program
    Satellite-deploying rocket finally launches – after a few setbacks

    South Korea's Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) yesterday succeeded in its endeavor to send the home-grown Nuri launcher into space, then place a working satellite in orbit.

    The launch was scheduled for earlier in June but was delayed by weather and then again by an anomaly in a first-stage oxidizer tank. Its October 2021 launch failed to deploy a dummy satellite, thanks to similar oxidizer tank problems that caused internal damage.

    South Korea was late to enter the space race due to a Cold War-era agreement with the US, which prohibited it developing a space program. That agreement was set aside and yesterday's launch is the culmination of more than a decade of development. The flight puts South Korea in a select group of nations that have demonstrated the capability to build and launch domestically designed and built orbital-class rockets.

    Continue reading
  • Sony launches a space laser subsidiary (for comms, not conflict)
    Plans to beam data to satellites, and between orbiting birds too

    Sony on Friday launched a subsidiary dedicated to optical communications – in space.

    The new company, Sony Space Communications Corporation (SSCC) plans to develop small optical communication devices that connect satellites in low Earth orbit using a laser beam, and provide the resulting connection as a service.

    These small devices can provide high speed communication more effectively than radio, because they do not need a large antenna, high power output or complicated licenses, said Sony in a canned statement.

    Continue reading
  • Beijing needs the ability to 'destroy' Starlink, say Chinese researchers
    Paper authors warn Elon Musk's 2,400 machines could be used offensively

    An egghead at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, writing in a peer-reviewed domestic journal, has advocated for Chinese military capability to take out Starlink satellites on the grounds of national security.

    According to the South China Morning Post, lead author Ren Yuanzhen and colleagues advocated in Modern Defence Technology not only for China to develop anti-satellite capabilities, but also to have a surveillance system that could monitor and track all satellites in Starlink's constellation.

    "A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation's operating system," the Chinese boffins reportedly said, estimating that data transmission speeds of stealth fighter jets and US military drones could increase by a factor of 100 through a Musk machine connection.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022