Mar 23, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Some Satellites Fail Due To 'Mini Nukes'

May 08, 2017 06:34 PM EDT

A number of satellites fail due to unknown reasons. All failures and losses simply don't have an explanation. But micrometeorites might be putting spacecraft at risk and causing the failure of satellites due to what is called 'mini-nukes'.

Last month, at a conference in Germany, experts met up to talk about the pressures of space debris rotating around the Earth. They explained that it could lead to big threats and mini-nukes. As there have been dangerous pieces of debris that have doubled in the past two to three decades, there might 150 million pieces that are bigger than 0.04 inches, at present orbiting the Earth.

Another team of experts from Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Boston talked about smaller particles, or mini-nukes, which might also be looming with a lot of risk against orbiting spacecraft. There are dust-sized micrometeorites and may not really break up spacecraft like debris. Still, simulations showed that, when impacted, the micrometeorites could produce a pulse of radiation that is strong and might even disable a satellite, says Digital Trends

The study was published this week in the journal Physics of Plasmas. This idea of mini-nukes was the brainchild of senior author of the study, Stanford's Sigrid Close. She examined the concept that hypervelocity impacts might be blamed for a few satellite failures. Most of these are not explained. Close and her team used computer simulations in order to model plasma and electromagnetic fields simultaneously. They could calculate how much radiation is possible to generate the plasma during impact.

"For the last few decades, researchers have studied these hypervelocity impacts and we've noticed that there's radiation from the impacts when the particles are going sufficiently fast," Alex Fletcher, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Boston University, said in a press release, referring to the mini-nukes. "No one has really been able to explain why it's there, where it comes from or the physical mechanism behind it."

The radio-frequency radiation happens whenever a projectile crashes against an object and gets transformed into a plasma. The plasma would expand and then its electrons begin to move more speedily than the positive ions that create a current. With the greater expansion of the plasma cloud, the electrons and ions tug at each other and begin to oscillate the current. It is an interplay that leads to the pulse of radiation. Close explained that Spectrum is like a "mini-nuke."


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