Keeping astronauts safe from meteroids

Apr 01, 2011
Astronauts Steve Bowen and Alvin drew work in tandem on one of the truss sections of the ISS during the first spacewalk of the STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA

Every day, about 100 tons of meteoroids bombard the Earth's atmosphere. These tiny particles can cause serious damage to spacecraft and astronauts alike. So how do we ensure the safety of space explorers and the important scientific experiments in orbit around our planet?

About 100 tons of meteoroids bombard the ’s every day. For in Earth orbit, a collision with these particles could cause serious damage or catastrophic failure, and a hit on an astronaut or cosmonaut conducting extra-vehicular activities in would be life-threatening, if not fatal. But before anyone steps outside the space shuttle or the International Space Station, NASA checks with data from Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar to determine if it’s safe.

Using a series of ‘smart cameras’, a one-of-a-kind triple-frequency radar system and computer modeling, CMOR provides real-time data, tracking a representative sample of the meteoroids around and approaching Earth, which are traveling at hypervelocity speeds averaging 10 km/s (22,000 mph).

The system is based at based at The University of Western Ontario.

“When it’s in orbit, the largest danger posed to the space shuttle is impact from orbital debris and meteoroids,” said Peter Brown, Western physics and astronomy professor. By knowing when meteoroid activity is high, NASA can make operational changes such as shielding vulnerable areas of the shuttle or deferring space walks so astronauts remain protected.

Brown said that the meteoroids tracked by the system are from 0.1mm and larger, and it detects the ionization trails left by these meteoroids and not the solid particles themselves.

Keeping astronauts safe from meteroids
The CMOR system consists of three identical radar systems slaved together to transmit and receive simultaneously. Credit: University of Western Ontario

CMOR records about 2,500 meteoroid orbits per day by using a multi-frequency HF/VHF radar. The radar produces data on the range, angle of arrival, and velocity/orbit in some instances. In operation since 1999, the system has measured 4 million individual orbits, as of 2009.

NASA makes daily decisions based on the data from this system. Radio waves are bounced off the ionization trails of meteors by the radar, allowing the system to provide the data necessary to understand meteoric activity on a given day. “From this information we can figure out how many meteoroids are hitting the atmosphere, as well as the direction they’re coming from and their velocity,” Brown said.

NASA says the greatest challenge is medium size particles (objects with a diameter between 1 cm to 10 cm), because of how difficult they are to track, and they are large enough to cause catastrophic damage to spacecraft and satellites. Small particles less than 1 cm pose less of a catastrophic threat, but they do cause surface abrasions and microscopic holes to spacecraft and satellites.

But the radar information from the Canadian system can also be combined with optical data to provide broader information about the space environment and produce models useful during the construction of satellites. Scientists are better able to shield or protect the satellites to minimize the effect of meteoroid impacts before sending them into space.

The ISS is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown, and uses “multishock” shielding, which uses several layers of lightweight ceramic fabric to act as “bumpers,” which shocks a projectile to such high energy levels that it melts or vaporizes and absorbs debris before it can penetrate a spacecraft’s walls. This shielding protects critical components such as habitable compartments and high-pressure tanks from the nominal threat of particles approximately 1 cm in diameter. The ISS also has the capability of maneuvering to avoid larger tracked objects.

The original radar system was developed for measuring winds in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and has since been modified by Brown and his fellow researchers to be optimized for the kinds of astronomical measurements currently being used by NASA.

When the radar detects meteors, the software analyzes the data, summarizes it and sends it to NASA electronically. Brown’s role is to keep the process running and continue to develop the techniques used to obtain the information over time.

Western has been working co-operatively with NASA for 15 years, and has been involved with its Meteor Environment Office (MEO) since it was created in 2004. The role of the MEO is predominantly to evaluate risk. “Everyone knows that rocks fly through space,” says MEO head Bill Cooke. “Our job is to help NASA programs, like the space station, figure out the risk to their equipment, educate them on the environment and give them models to evaluate the risks posed to spacecrafts and .”

Many missions in Earth orbit collect data important for understanding how life responds and adapts to conditions in space.

Explore further: How Rosetta arrives at a comet

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Exploding Lunar Eclipse

Aug 27, 2007

Most people appreciate lunar eclipses for their silent midnight beauty. NASA astronomer Bill Cooke is different: he loves the explosions.

Lunar Leonid Strikes

Dec 04, 2006

Meteoroids are smashing into the Moon a lot more often than anyone expected. That's the tentative conclusion of Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, after his team observed two Leonids hitting ...

NASA Begins Hunt for New Meteor Showers

Nov 11, 2008

It started out as a normal day. NASA astronomer and meteor expert Bill Cooke woke up, dressed, and went to his office at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Colleagues greeted him as usual, there was no hum ...

ARTEMIS spacecraft believed stuck by object

Oct 25, 2010

Flight Dynamics data from THEMIS-B (one of the two ARTEMIS spacecraft) indicated that one of the EFI (electric field instrument)spherical tip masses may have been struck by a meteoroid at 0605 UT on October ...

NIST shielding data help launch shuttle

Sep 12, 2005

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans for the next launch of the space shuttle, a critical aspect of the program's safety is being assured by 5 million pieces of data collected recently by the ...

Lockheed Martin submits bid for Space Fence

Nov 19, 2010

Lockheed Martin submitted its proposal today for the next phase of Space Fence, a program that will revamp the way the U.S. Air Force identifies and tracks objects in space.

Recommended for you

Rosetta measures comet's temperature

15 hours ago

( —ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has made its first temperature measurements of its target comet, finding that it is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust.

How Rosetta arrives at a comet

17 hours ago

After travelling nearly 6.4 billion kilometres through the Solar System, ESA's Rosetta is closing in on its target. But how does a spacecraft actually arrive at a comet?

Lunar occultation of Saturn

17 hours ago

On the night of Monday August 4, mainland Australia will see Saturn disappear behind the moon. It's the third time this year that the moon and Saturn will perfectly line up, as viewed from our part of the ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 01, 2011
if the earth entertains 100 tons of meteorites daily why hasn't its mass increased incredibly since its beginning as a singular orb in space or even in one"s lifetime...In other words what is leaving our planetary home to ensure an equilibrium of mass else our orbit would be wobbling away from the safe to life as we know it zone..Wouldn't it...
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2011
The earth weighs approximately 6,585,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons.

100 tons * 365 (1year) * 10000 years is 365000000 tons. For the earth, thats not very much as a percentage.
not rated yet Apr 04, 2011
if the earth entertains 100 tons of meteorites daily why hasn't its mass increased incredibly since its beginning as a singular orb in space or even in one"s lifetime...In other words what is leaving our planetary home to ensure an equilibrium of mass else our orbit would be wobbling away from the safe to life as we know it zone..Wouldn't it...

We're essentially talking about tiny sand like grains of meteorites(for the most part) which burn up on atmospheric entry. Notice it says "bombards the atmosphere" and not bombards the planet.
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
Keeping the astronauts safe from Mete robots... the METEROIDS!

Meteroids? Really?