Does space dust settle on orbiting space shuttles? — A, Troy, MT
What a great question! I love it. The answer is no, but there’s much more to the story.
I’ll begin to looking at how dust settles in calm air near the ground. That dust experiences its weight due to gravity, so it tends to descend. Each particle would fall like a rock except that it’s so tiny that it experiences overwhelming air resistance. Instead of falling, it descends at an incredibly slow terminal velocity, typically only millimeters per second. It eventually lands on whatever is beneath it, so a room’s floor gradually accumulates dust. But dust also accumulates on vertical walls and even on ceilings. That dust is held in place not by its weight but by electrostatic or chemical forces. When you go into an abandoned attic, most of the dust is on the floor, but there’s a little on the walls and on the ceiling.
OK, now to the space shuttle. The shuttle is orbiting the earth, which means that although it has weight and is falling freely, it never actually reaches the earth because it’s heading sideways so fast. Without gravity, its inertia would carry it horizontally out into space along a straight line path. Gravity, however, bends that straight line path into an elliptical arc that loops around the earth as an orbit.
So far no real surprises: dust near ground level settles in calm air and the shuttle orbits the earth. The surprise is that particles of space dust particles also orbit the earth! The shuttle orbits above the atmosphere, where there is virtual no air. Without air to produce air resistance, the dust particles also fall freely. Those with little horizontal speed simply drop into the atmosphere and are lost. But many dust particles have tremendous horizontal speeds and orbit the earth like tiny space shuttles or satellites.
Whether they are dropping toward atmosphere or orbiting the earth, these space dust particles are typically traveling at velocities that are quite different in speed or direction from the velocity of the space shuttle. The relative speed between a dust particle and the shuttle can easily exceed 10,000 mph. When such a fast-moving dust particle hits the space shuttle, it doesn’t “settle.” Rather, it collides violently with the shuttle’s surface. These dust-shuttle collisions erode the surfaces of the shuttle and necessitate occasional repairs or replacements of damaged windows and sensors. Astronauts on spacewalks also experience these fast collisions with space dust and rely on their suits to handle all the impacts.
Without any air to slow the relative speeds and cushion the impacts, its rare that a particle of space dust lands gracefully on the shuttle’s surface. In any case, gravity won’t hold a dust particle in place on the shuttle because both the shuttle and dust are falling freely and gravity doesn’t press one against the other. But electrostatic and chemical attractions can hold some dust particles in place once they do land. So the shuttle probably does accumulate a very small amount of accumulated space dust during its travels.