SEM-2 Space Environment Monitor on MetOp
SEM-2 Space Environment Monitor on MetOp

Space environments and effects

Studying the orbital environment and its potential effects on space systems and crews

The Space Environments and Effects section is the Agency's focal point for analyses of the physical environment in space and its effects on space systems and astronauts.

The space environments considered include energetic particle radiation, plasmas, atmospheres, micro-particles, and contamination. They can all cause serious problems for space systems and experts need to carefully take them into account during the development of spacecraft.

This website provides a general introduction to our activities. More - in depth - information with respect to the section's research & development, project support, on-line data and documentation can be accessed via the "Activities of the Space Environments and Effects section" link in the left navigation bar.


Space environment conditions are a complex set of phenomena involving the Sun and the Earth

The section's primary role is to support ESA project developments with analyses of space environments and their effects. To do this, the section has an active research programme that includes the acquisition and analysis of in-flight data and the development of environment and effects models.

Environments and effects domains of responsibility include:

  • Radiation environments (radiation belts, cosmic rays, solar radiation), shielding and interactions (dose, degradation, charging, single event effects, sensor background, astronaut hazards);
  • Plasma environments and interactions (spacecraft surface and internal electrostatic charging, science instrument effects, electric propulsion, solar arrays, "active" systems);
  • Micro-particle (small-sized debris, micro-meteoroids and dust) environments and effects, especially risk assessment tools;
  • Atmospheric models and tools for engineering use (atomic oxygen erosion, etc.), for mission planning (Mars & Titan global models), and for support of Earth observation payloads.
SOHO/LASCO coronagraph image showing contamination by energetic particles associated with solar activity

The radiation environment, consisting of 'trapped' radiation belts, cosmic rays, and solar energetic particles causes effects such as radiation damage, single-event upsets in electronics, background in detectors, and health hazards to astronauts. Apart from developing and using models of the environment and effects, the section is responsible for ESA's participation in the world-wide Geant4 collaboration to develop tools for analysing energetic particle interactions with matter.

Another phenomenon is the plasma environment which increases electrostatic charging of spacecraft parts or affects scientific instruments. The section is developing a toolkit for in-depth analysis of spacecraft-plasma interaction problems.

Impact crater (size 4 mm) on solar cell retrieved from space

Micro-meteoroids and space debris environments cause significant risks for manned and unmanned spacecraft. The section has developed and applied models, based on in-flight data on impacts.

Another phenomenon studied by the section is the effects of the residual upper atmosphere, such as surface erosion from atomic oxygen in space. The section also develops atmospheric models and engineering tools for Earth, Mars, Venus, and Titan.

In addition to these core activities, the section is also the driving force behind the ESA Space Weather applications initiative comprising a number of studies investigating a potential Space Weather Applications Programme for the Agency.

Last update: 6 May 2014

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