Obscure Dangers of Spaceflight: Static Electricity

Obscure Dangers of Spaceflight: Static Electricity

In part three of the six part series on the obscure dangers of spaceflight, we will take a look at how one, harmless seeming zap can kill or seriously incapacitate space travel. See how the exchange of electrons can bring man, in all his technological glory, to his knees.

Charging Atoms

Static Electricity.
To some, it’s nothing more than a mild annoyance that gives you a little zap when you touch something or someone. To others it’s a means of entertainment, as anyone who has used it to make hair stand on end or balloons stick to walls will be quick to tell you. Nobody is really afraid of static electricity because it is pretty weak and aside from surprising you, it can’t hurt you. Unless you are momentarily away from the planet.
In space, static electricity loses all of its funny and annoying properties and takes on an entirely new form; death lightning from the pits of…well, you know.

The source of static electricity in space.

The Power of Static

To really understand how something as simple (and mild) as static electricity can hurt future space explorers, we have to go back to high school science class. Remember how electricity works? Everything is made of atoms. Each of these atoms has a charge, and while it is usually a neutral one, occasionally atoms can exchange electrons, making them change from neutral to positive or negative. In order to return to a neutral state, they give off little zaps as the electrons transfer to atoms of the opposite charge.

Harmless Fun

In the summer, we generally feel fewer of these shocks because of the high moisture content in the air. In dryer areas, or during the winter when it is naturally dry, however, it is not uncommon to see (or, feel rather) the mini lightening bolts that form between your hand and whatever you are touching as the electrons are transferred between objects of differing charges.

Space is DRY!

No really, space is the epitome of dry. In fact, it is so dry that NASA scientists realize that static electricity can be responsible for not only hindering a mission to the moon or Mars, but it can seriously compromise it. The surface of the moon, or Mars due to its lack of sustainable atmosphere, has the ability to accumulate so much static electricity that it can easily short circuit any and all of the important life support, astronaut preserving, only way home equipment.
Why? Think about this. To build up static electricity on Earth, you can simply walk across the rug with socks on and then you are ready to shock someone! Likewise, when an astronaut moves across the surface of the moon or Mars, they build up massive amounts of static electricity, meaning anything they touch after a nice stroll will have to face a mini lightening storm, and it better be capable of withstanding it.
On Mars, NASA has found the static to be exceptionally bad. It was so much so, that the agency commissioned a project that eventually built groundbreaking reverse lightening rods that were used on the Pathfinder spacecraft. This solution, however great for Mars, wouldn’t work on the moon, as there still is no atmosphere.

Nasa's reverse lightening rods; easily one of the coolest things ever built by the government.

And remember that moon dust from before? If you don’t inhale it, you can bet that all this static electricity is going to stir it up, resulting in the clogging of vital and pricey equipment with electronically charged, demonic dirt.
If that weren’t enough, scientists also found out that it doesn’t take an EVA to build up the static that would cripple a spacecraft. No, solar storms have the same effect, creating massive amounts of electricity that can knock out and totally ruin an astronauts otherwise perfectly normal day.

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