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A Meteoroid Handbook for Aerospace Engineers and ManagersAt the beginning of the Space Age, spacecraft designers and mission planners were very concerned about meteoroids. They envisioned vehicles being ripped to pieces by streams of fast-moving space rocks, a notion promoted by the science fiction novels and movies of the time. The reality is, of course, different—the meteoroid streams that produce meteor showers are not dense by laypeople’s standards, having spatial densities of just a handful of particles per cubic kilometer, even during meteor outbursts. The ever-present, diffuse, sporadic background, which produces observed meteor rates of only 5 to 8 meteors per hour, makes up 90% of the meteoroid risk to spacecraft that spend at least a year in low Earth orbit (LEO), whereas the visually spectacular but short-lived meteor showers make up the other 10%.
Still, meteoroids do pose a significant risk to spacecraft. At Earth, they can travel 12 to 72 km/s. These high speeds cause even small meteoroids to carry enormous kinetic energy, making them capable of doing serious damage to spacecraft. For example, a 1-mm-diameter meteoroid moving at 25 km/s can inflict the same damage as a bullet fired from a 0.357 Magnum pistol.
An exterior wire can be severed by a 0.1-mm (100 mm) particle, a spacesuit can be penetrated by a 0.5-mm meteoroid, and an unshielded pressure wall (like the cabin of the Space Shuttle) can be perforated by centimeter-sized particles.
Along with mechanical damage, meteoroids can also cause other types of spacecraft anomalies. Meteoroids can transfer their momentum to the spacecraft, which can destroy or damage equipment such as shunt resistors and charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors with a clear view of space. Meteoroid impacts can also generate plasma. The impact vaporizes material, producing a crater and an expanding plasma, which can in turn provide a conductive path for any charge accumulated on the spacecraft. This effect is thought to be responsible for the demise of a satellite in one case: the OLYMPUS communications satellite was sent tumbling out of control during the 1993 Perseid outburst, and a Perseid meteoroid strike has been posited as a possible cause (McDonnell et al. 1993; Caswell et al. 1995). Other researchers have suggested that very fast meteoroids could produce a small electromagnetic pulse capable of disrupting spacecraft function (Close et al. 2010).
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Marshall Space Flight Center
Document Type
Technical Memorandum (TM)
Moorhead, A.
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Cooke, B.
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Blaauw, R.
(Jacobs Engineering Group Huntsville, AL, United States)
Moser, D.
(Jacobs Engineering Group Huntsville, AL, United States)
Ehlert, S.
(Jacobs Engineering Group Huntsville, AL, United States)
Date Acquired
January 3, 2020
Publication Date
December 1, 2019
Subject Category
Engineering (General)
Report/Patent Number
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
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