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What does NASA do with geostationary satellites during a known meteor shower?

David Kennedy, Auburndale, Florida
RELATED TOPICS: SPACECRAFT
During the Leonid meteor storms of the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientists rotated the Hubble Space Telescope so that its most sensitive side was pointed away from Leo, from which the meteors appear to radiate.
During the Leonid meteor storms of the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientists rotated the Hubble Space Telescope so that its most sensitive side — the open telescope — was pointed away from Leo, from which the meteors appear to radiate.
NASA
The majority of geostationary satellites, which take 24 hours to orbit Earth and thus are always above the same latitude and longitude, are commercial and/or military, but NASA operates nine geostationary Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. These are extremely important because they relay data and communications from the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, science satellites, launch vehicles, and even science payloads aboard balloons. Meteor showers, however, affect everything in Earth orbit, so even a satellite in low Earth orbit is at risk.

Satellite designs account for the slight threat increase during normal shower activity, so there is no need to take protective measures. Although popular movies show spacecraft destroyed by meteor showers, these events actually account for only about 10 percent of the risk posed by meteoroids to a normal spacecraft. Background, or sporadic, meteoroids are always present and make up the other 90 percent. While the visible rates on Earth are low (about six per hour), the fact that sporadics happen 24/7, year-round makes them the biggest risk to space vehicles, as opposed to the meteoroids in the more spectacular short-duration (a few days) meteor showers.

Still, the relatively rare intense meteor-shower outbursts, or storms, can present a large enough risk to spacecraft to take some sort of preventive action. During these events, engineers may reorient a spacecraft, turning its “hard side” toward the direction of the incoming shower meteoroids. For example, during the Leonid meteor storms of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Hubble team pointed the telescope away from Leo while the showers were active.

Other ways to minimize the risk to spacecraft is to position solar arrays so they are “edge on” to the meteor stream (but this must be done in such a way to not significantly reduce the power) or shut down high-voltage sources to prevent electrical anomalies that a meteoroid impact could cause. The ISS is armored to protect against orbital debris and meteoroids, so the risk of meteoroids penetrating it is fairly low, even during a meteor storm. However, space suits are obviously much more vulnerable to a meteoroid strike, so astronauts will remain inside the station during a shower.
William Cooke
Marshall Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, Alabama
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