It is easy to see the solar system as a void when looking at endless, icy, dark spaces, according to themedia CNET. But in microscopic stars inside the solar system, tiny space dust invisible to the naked eye orbits the Earth at speeds of more than 40,000 miles per hour. This poses a potential hazard to our spacecraft entering orbit to investigate the universe. But how big is microdust?
Researchers at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are trying to find out. The team used the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna Pathfinder mission (LISA Pathfinder or LPF), which was in orbit from January 2016 to July 2017, to investigate how often their spacecraft was hit by space dust.
The study, published in the Astrophysical Journal in September, details 54 collisions between space dust and the LPF spacecraft. The task is essentially a technical demonstration – the equipment contained in the LPF will be used in the fully functional LISA Observatory. The core task of LPF is to demonstrate that airborne technology could be used for comprehensive tasks in the future. Before launch, however, the researchers realized that the spacecraft’s unique, sensitive instruments could be used to detect small impacts.
This is because each time the LPF is hit, the small thruster helps it correct its course. Check these tiny course corrections to see what hit it and how much power it uses. The researchers studied 4,348 hours of LPF data and created a comprehensive data set for micron-scale collisions with spacecraft.
Then, by modeling the Impact of LPF, the researchers were able to determine where the dust might have originated. Previous studies of space dust in this part of the solar system have shown that most of it comes from short-period comets such as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, whose orbit sits controlled by the gaseous giant planet Jupiter, the comet of the Jupiter family. The “comet debris” that collided with the LPF coincided with these studies, most of which came from the Jupiter family of comets, while a small number came from longer-period comets.
ESA will launch a variant of LPF in 2034 – a device of three triangular spacecraft that will allow astronomers to search for gravitational waves with unprecedented precision. This would be a huge boon for astronomers studying extreme cosmic events, such as black hole merges from the other side of the universe, but LPF has shown that the next generation of instruments will also help experiment sparingly close to Earth.