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Space dust hit the ESA spacecraft at 40,000 miles, but that's a good thing.


The micrometeroid effects injured the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft 54 ​​times in a journey of over 4,000 hours.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

By looking at a never-ending void, it is easy to think of the solar system as the void of an empty void. But in the inner solar system, tiny space dust spots that cannot be seen with the naked eye on micrometeroids are flying around the Earth at speeds above 40,000 miles. This presents potential dangers for the spacecraft we have orbited to investigate the universe. But how big a problem can microscopic dust be?

Researchers at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) wanted to learn. Using the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) guidingor between January 2016 and July 2017, the LPF conducted a survey by examining how often the team spacecraft crashed with space dust.

In a research published in the Astrophysics Journal in September, there were 54 collisions with the LPF spacecraft. The task basically meant technology – the equipment included in the LPF will be used in the fully functional LISA observatory. The main task of the LPF was to show that onboard technology could be used for a full-fledged mission in the future. Before launching, however, researchers realized that the spacecraft's unique precision tools can be used to detect very small effects.

This is because the LPF helps small thrusters correct the course each time it hits. Examining these small course corrections revealed what hit and how hard it was. The researchers were able to access 4,348-hour LPF data to create and consider a comprehensive data micrometeroid collision dataset with the spacecraft.

Then, by modeling the effects on LPF, researchers were able to determine where the micrometeroid originates. Earlier studies of space dust in this region of the solar system have shown that most of them originate from short-term comets, such as 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko, whose orbits are controlled by gas giant Jupiter (Jupiter family comets). The "comet crumbs" colliding with the LPF are, in parallel with these studies, with the majority of the effects from the Jupiter family comets and with a smaller contribution than the longer-term comet tails.

The ESA will launch the evolution of LPF in 2034 – three spacecraft arranged in a triangle that allows astronomers to hunt gravitational waves with unprecedented precision. This is a great blessing for astronomers studying extreme cosmological phenomena, such as black hole mergers from the other side of the universe, but the LPF has shown that next-generation vehicles will also help to make experiments closer to home.

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