Introduction to space environment

The space environment consists of many hazards.

Most of these hazards have specific effects on spacecraft and their components. On this figure, the environmental events are shown, together with their related hazards.

Radiation in space

Intense belts of energetic charged particles surround the Earth - the Van Allen belts. The sun's activity can create additional energetic particles which can come in sudden bursts. High energy heavy charged particles also reach the Earth's vicinity from outside the solar system. All these natural radiation sources are serious problems to the survivability and operation of satellites.


Plasmas - ionised gases - are encountered around Earth. They cause a multitude of problems, the most serious of which is the electrostatic charging of satellite surfaces when energetic plasma is injected near the busy geostationary orbit, e.g. during magnetospheric storms and substorms. Discharges can severely disturb operations and even result in the loss of satellites.

The cold ionospheric plasma is also a problem for operating high power systems because of its conductivity, and electromagnetic systems because of its dispersive and refractive properties.

Micro-meteoroids and space debris

Meteoroids and space debris can seriously damage satellites. Increasing space activities add to the space debris problem in popular orbits while the meteoroid environment is an ever-present though sporadic feature. The largest concern is for manned missions where a careful risk assessment must be made.


Other environments which have to be considered include the residue of the atmosphere at low orbital altitudes which includes highly-reactive atomic oxygen, contamination, dust, etc.

Last update: 6 May 2014

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