Shooting Stars Can Shoot Down Satellites

We don’t know enough about meteoroids

8 min read
The author with the Los Alamos portable pulser.

Star Track: The author with the Los Alamos portable pulser, which beams VHF signals that satellites can detect.

Photo: Chip Simons

In August 1993, the European Space Agency’s Olympus 1 experimental satellite was in trouble. The annual Perseid meteor shower, especially fierce that year, was just getting started. Usually, given sufficient warning of intense meteor activity, satellites can engage their defenses: They might,for example, protect themselves against incoming projectiles by orienting their solar panels against attacks, like shields. But Olympus 1 was at a disadvantage. A previous mishap had disabled the satellite’s ability to shift its solar arrays, leaving it defenseless. In short order, an incoming Perseid particle knocked out Olympus’s gyroscope stability, which sent the satellite spinning wildly. Attempts to regain control used up most of the craft’s fuel, leaving the US $850 million satellite with barely enough to propel itself into a graveyard orbit, where it could neither hit other satellites nor do much of anything useful. Olympus 1 will likely remain there forever, cold and dead before its time.

In 2009, Landsat 5, a satellite jointly operated by NASA and the U.S. Geological Service, also began to spin out of control, again during an August peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Far below, satellite trackers scrambled to find out what had happened. Had the satellite been hit by a stray rock from space? Was the culprit a solar storm or an impact with one of the thousands of pieces of orbiting debris shed from other spacecraft or booster rockets? Or was the cause more alarming: an attack from a hostile nation?

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Video Friday: Turkey Sandwich

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
A teleoperated humanoid robot torso stands in a kitchen assembling a turkey sandwich from ingredients on a tray

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

Enjoy today's videos!

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New AI Speeds Computer Graphics by Up to 5x

Neural rendering harnesses machine learning to paint pixels

5 min read
Four examples of Nvidia's Instant NeRF 2D-to-3D machine learning model placed side-by-side.

Nvidia Instant NeRF uses neural rendering to generate 3D visuals from 2D images.


On 20 September, Nvidia’s Vice President of Applied Deep Learning, Bryan Cantanzaro, went to Twitter with a bold claim: In certain GPU-heavy games, like the classic first-person platformer Portal, seven out of eight pixels on the screen are generated by a new machine-learning algorithm. That’s enough, he said, to accelerate rendering by up to 5x.

This impressive feat is currently limited to a few dozen 3D games, but it’s a hint at the gains neural rendering will soon deliver. The technique will unlock new potential in everyday consumer electronics.

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FAST Labs’ Cutting-Edge R&D Gets Ideas to the Field Faster

BAE Systems’ FAST Labs engineers turn breakthrough innovations into real-life impact

1 min read

FAST Labs is an R&D organization where research teams can invent and see their work come to life.

BAE Systems

This is a sponsored article brought to you by BAE Systems.

No one sets out to put together half a puzzle. Similarly, researchers and engineers in the defense industry want to see the whole picture – seeing their innovations make it into the hands of warfighters and commercial customers.

That desire is fueling growth at BAE Systems’ FAST Labs research and development (R&D) organization.

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