Satellites perform a variety of jobs in space. From bouncing cell phone signals to beaming your favorite television shows, satellites are necessary machines of the 21st century. Now, it seems that one of the ESA’s (European Space Agency) satellites might not be performing at peak capacity. Why? A piece of space debris hit it.
So, what exactly happened?
The debris affected the satellite known as Copernicus Sentinel A-1 on August 23. Sometimes, satellite debris hitting an object in space isn’t a big deal. At other times, it can lead to the loss of an entire spacecraft. This particular instance is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
First, the particle is of an unknown origin. Scientists can see the object slam into the satellite, but aren’t exactly sure what it is. Their best guess is simply “space junk.” This is peculiar because scientists on the ground can usually detect when a satellite could cross paths with other flying objects.
Secondly, the piece of debris collided with the satellite at an astounding 24,800 mph. Though the debris was only a few millimeters in size, it was still able to damage an area 40 cm wide (15.7 inches) in one of the solar panels. This incident brings up the question of space junk and its effect on man-made spacecraft and technology.
Space debris 101
Space debris can be broken down into two categories: natural and man-made. Natural space debris mainly consists of objects such as extremely small meteorites. The size of these objects varies. Most debris is so small that they are untraceable. A smaller amount of debris mimics the size of a softball, and can do significantly more damage.
Man-made space junk has a fascinating story. Humans have launched a lot of things into space. The majority of the time, these objects stay in orbit once their missions are complete. Hundreds of satellites and pieces of spacecraft float aimlessly within Earth’s orbit. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. However, they can impact a functioning satellite and damage it if the two cross paths. Astronauts have learned to try and prevent these events from occurring.
Built to withstand the extremes of space
These days, any piece of equipment in space is built to withstand minor impacts. Manufacturers must use stainless steels and corrosion-resistant alloys to prevent wear and tear on satellites. However, satellites also have another foe to deal with: radiation. Radiation swamps space. It’s everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Though space technology is supremely advanced, radiation still causes a major problem for space agencies by damaging onboard research equipment.
Research has been done to study the effects of radiation on satellites. As satellites continue to advance, they become increasingly susceptible to radiation than previously launched satellites. Why? It has to do with the transistors in the satellite, which are particularly vulnerable to radiation.
Moore’s law states that the number of transistors doubles for a circuit once every 18-24 months; therefore, this increases the chance of radiation affecting a satellite. With that number increasing every year and a half, the chances radiation will hurt the satellite only increases.
One of the ways astronauts and scientists combat radiation is with a radiation detection system. The onboard computer system of the satellite houses this detection system among other necessary instruments. If the satellite comes into any harmful radiation areas, the scientists back on Earth will know.
The satellites are built to withstand the wilderness of space, so not too much should be able to hurt them, if it’s not that big. However, the best course of action scientists take is maneuvering the spacecraft/satellite out of the way. Unfortunately, this only works if they detect the object in time.
What’s happening now
Copernicus Sentinel-1A did have damage to a solar panel. According to the ESA, further analysis is necessary and in the works to determine if the object was man-made, or natural. Thankfully, the satellite is still operational after being blindsided by a rogue space object.
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, visit her page Schooled by Science.