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Why getting hit by space dust is an unavoidable aspect of space travel

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Why getting hit by space dust is an unavoidable aspect of space travel

On June 8th, NASA revealed that its new powerful space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is now sporting a small dimple in one of its primary mirrors after getting pelted by a larger-than-expected micrometeoroid out in deep space. The news came as a bit of a shock since the impact happened just five months into the telescope’s space tenure — but such strikes are simply an inevitable aspect of space travel, and more thwacks are certainly on their way.

Despite what its name implies, space isn’t exactly empty. Within our Solar System, tiny bits of space dust are zooming through the regions between our planets at whopping speeds that can reach up to tens of thousands of miles per hour. These micrometeoroids, no larger than a grain of sand, are often little pieces of asteroids or comets that have broken away and are now orbiting around the Sun. And they’re everywhere. A rough estimate of small meteoroids in the inner Solar System puts their combined total mass at about 55 trillion tons (if they were all combined into one rock, it’d be about the size of a small island).

That means that if you send a spacecraft into deep space, your hardware is certain to get hit by one of these little bits of space rock at some point. Knowing this, spacecraft engineers will construct their vehicles with certain protections to shield against micrometeoroid strikes. They’ll often incorporate something called Whipple shielding, a special multi-layer barrier. If the shield is hit by a micrometeoroid, the particle will pass through the first layer and fragment even further, so the second layer is hit by even smaller particles. Such shielding is usually used around sensitive components of spacecraft for extra protection.

But with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, it’s trickier. The telescope’s gold-coated mirrors must be exposed to the space environment in order to properly gather light from the distant Universe. And while these mirrors were built to withstand some impacts, they are more or less sitting ducks for larger micrometeoroid strikes, like the one that hit JWST in May. Though the micrometeoroid was still smaller than a grain of sand, it was larger than what NASA anticipated — enough to cause damage to one of the mirrors.

Spacecraft operators model the micrometeoroid population out in space to get a better understanding of how often a spacecraft might get hit in any given part of the Solar System — and what size particles might be thwacking their hardware. But even then, it’s not a foolproof system. “It’s all probability,” David Malaspina, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado focusing on cosmic dust impacts on spacecraft, tells The Verge. “You can only say, ‘I have this chance of getting hit by this sized particle.’ But whether or not you ever do, that’s up to chance.”

Examples of different types of Whipple shielding
Image: NASA

Micrometeoroids have a wide range of origin stories. They can be the leftover products of high-speed collisions in space, which pulverize space rocks into minuscule pieces. Asteroids and comets also get bombarded over time by space particles and photons from the Sun, causing tiny pieces to break off. An asteroid can also get too close to a large planet like Jupiter, where the strong gravitational pull wrenches off pieces of the rock. Or an object can get too close to the Sun and get too hot, causing the rock to expand and break apart into pieces. There are even interstellar micrometeoroids that are just passing through our Solar System from more distant cosmic neighborhoods.

How fast these particles move depends on what region of space they’re in and the path they take around our star, averaging about 45,000 miles per hour, or 20 kilometers a second. Whether or not they’ll run into your spacecraft also depends on where your vehicle lives in space and how fast it’s moving. For instance, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is the closest human-made object to the Sun at the moment, moving at a top speed of more than 400,000 miles per hour. “It gets down to the 4-yard line, compared to Earth being all the way at one end zone,” says Malaspina, who has focused on studying micrometeoroid impacts on Parker Solar Probe. It’s also moving through the densest part of a region called the zodiacal cloud, a thick disk of space particles that permeates our Solar System. So the Parker Solar Probe is getting sandblasted more frequently than JWST— and it’s hitting these particles at incredibly high speeds than the telescope would get hit.

The Parker Solar Probe is giving us a better understanding of micrometeoroids around the Sun, but we have a pretty good understanding of the population around Earth, too. Whenever a micrometeoroid hits the upper atmosphere around our planet, it burns up and creates meteoric smoke — fine smoke particles that can be measured. The amount of this smoke can tell us how much dust is hitting Earth over time. Additionally, there have been experiments on the International Space Station, where materials have been mounted on the outside of the orbiting lab to see how often they’re bombarded.

An artistic rendering of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
Image: NASA

While JWST lives roughly 1 million miles from Earth, that’s still relatively close by. Scientists also have an idea of what’s out there based on other missions sent to a similar orbit as JWST. And most of the stuff that hits the telescope isn’t that big of a deal. “Spacecraft get hit by little ones all the time,” Malaspina says. “By little, I mean fractions of a micron — much, much, much smaller than a human hair. And for the most part, spacecraft don’t even notice those.” In fact, JWST was already hit by small micrometeoroids four times before getting hit by the larger micrometeoroid in May.

NASA did model the micrometeoroid environment before JWST launched, but in light of the recent impact, the agency has convened a new team to refine their models and better predict what might happen to the telescope after future impacts. Current micrometeoroid modeling will try to predict things like how debris spreads through an orbit if an asteroid or comet breaks apart. That kind of debris is more dynamic, Malaspina says, making it harder to predict.

At the end of the day, though, prediction will simply give you more knowledge about when a spacecraft might get hit by a large speck of dust. One-off impacts like this are simply inevitable. JWST will continue to get blasted over time, but it was an eventuality that NASA was always prepared for. “You just have to live with the probability that you will be hit eventually by some sized dust particle, and you just do the best you can with the engineering,” says Malaspina.

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FIFA 23 lets you turn off commentary pointing out how bad you are

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FIFA 23 lets you turn off commentary pointing out how bad you are
A player shouldering the ball



(Image credit: EA)

FIFA 23 might be the best game soccer game yet for terrible sports fans, as it lets you turn off commentary that criticizes your bad playing.

Now that the early access FIFA 23 release time has passed, EA Play and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers can hop into the game ahead of its full release. But as Eurogamer (opens in new tab) spotted, they’ll find a peculiar option waiting for them.

FIFA 23 includes a toggle to turn off ‘Critical Commentary’. The setting lets you silence all negative in-match comments made about your technique, so you can protect your precious ego even when you miss an open goal or commit an obvious foul. The more positive commentary won’t be affected. 

Spare your feelings

A player dribbling the ball in FIFA 23

(Image credit: EA)

The feature looks tailored toward children and new players, who don’t want to have their confidence wrecked within mere minutes of picking up the controller. But even experienced players who just so happen to be terrible at the game might benefit.

It’s not perfect, though. According to Eurogamer, the feature didn’t seem to work during a FIFA Ultimate Team Division Rivals match, with critical comments slipping through the filter. Still, who hasn’t benefited from a light grilling every now and then?

Polite commentary isn’t the only new addition in FIFA 23. It’s the first game in the series to include women’s club football teams, and fancy overhauled animations that take advantage of the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S’s new-gen hardware. EA will be hoping to end on a high, as FIFA 23 will be the last of its soccer games to release with the official FIFA licence.

If disabling critical commentary doesn’t improve your soccer skills, maybe building a squad of Marvel superheroes will. Although you might not do much better with Ted Lasso wandering the pitch.

FIFA 23 is set to fully release this Friday, September 30.

Callum is TechRadar Gaming’s News Writer. You’ll find him whipping up stories about all the latest happenings in the gaming world, as well as penning the odd feature and review. Before coming to TechRadar, he wrote freelance for various sites, including Clash, The Telegraph, and Gamesindustry.biz, and worked as a Staff Writer at Wargamer. Strategy games and RPGs are his bread and butter, but he’ll eat anything that spins a captivating narrative. He also loves tabletop games, and will happily chew your ear off about TTRPGs and board games. 

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Google Pixel 7 price leak suggests Google is totally out of touch

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Google Pixel 7 price leak suggests Google is totally out of touch
The backs of the Pixel 7 and the Pixel 7 Pro



(Image credit: Google)

We’re starting to hear more and more Google Pixel 7 leaks, with the launch of the phone just a week away, but tech fans might be getting a lot of déjà vu, with the leaks all listing near-identical specs to what we heard about the Pixel 6 a year ago.

It sounds like the new phones – a successor to the Pixel 6 Pro is also expected – could be very similar to their 2021 predecessors. And a new price leak has suggested that the phones’ costs could be the same too, as a Twitter user spotted the Pixel 7 briefly listed on Amazon (before being promptly taken down, of course).

Google pixel 7 on Amazon US. $599.99.It is still showing up in search cache but the listing gives an error if you click on it. We have the B0 number to keep track of though!#teampixel pic.twitter.com/w5Z09D28YESeptember 27, 2022

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According to these listings, the Pixel 7 will cost $599 while the Pixel 7 Pro will cost $899, both of which are identical to the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro starting prices. The leak doesn’t include any other region prices, but in the UK the current models cost £599 and £849, while in Australia they went for AU$999 and AU$1,299.

So it sounds like Google is planning on retaining the same prices for its new phones as it sold the old ones for, a move which doesn’t make much sense.


Analysis: same price, new world

Google’s choice to keep the same price points is a little curious when you consider that the specs leaks suggest these phones are virtually unchanged from their predecessors. You’re buying year-old tech for the same price as before.

Do bear in mind that the price of tech generally lowers over time, so you can readily pick up a cheaper Pixel 6 or 6 Pro right now, and after the launch of the new ones, the older models will very likely get even cheaper.

But there’s another key factor to consider in the price: $599 might be the same number in 2022 as it was in 2021, but with the changing global climate, like wars and flailing currencies and cost of living crises, it’s a very different amount of money.

Some people just won’t be willing to shell out the amount this year, that they may have been able to last year. But this speaks to a wider issue in consumer tech.

Google isn’t the only tech company to completely neglect the challenging global climate when pricing its gadgets: Samsung is still releasing super-pricey folding phones, and the iPhone 14 is, for some incomprehensible reason, even pricier than the iPhone 13 in some regions. 

Too few brands are actually catering to the tough economic times many are facing right now, with companies increasing the price of their premium offerings to counter rising costs, instead of just designing more affordable alternatives to flagships.

These high and rising prices suggest that companies are totally out of touch with their buyers, and don’t understand the economic hardship troubling many.

We’ll have to reach a breaking point sooner or later, either with brands finally clueing into the fact that they need to release cheaper phones, or with customers voting with their wallets by sticking to second-hand or refurbished devices. But until then, you can buy the best cheap phones to show that cost is important to you.

Tom’s role in the TechRadar team is to specialize in phones and tablets, but he also takes on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness, mobile gaming and more. He is based in London, UK.

He graduated in American Literature and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Prior to working in TechRadar freelanced in tech, gaming and entertainment, and also spent many years working as a mixologist. Outside of TechRadar he works in film as a screenwriter, director and producer.

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DisplayMate awards the “Best Smartphone Display” title to the iPhone 14 Pro Max

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DisplayMate awards the “Best Smartphone Display” title to the iPhone 14 Pro Max

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