One of the causes of ESD events is static electricity. Static electricity is often generated through tribocharging, the separation of electric charges that occurs when two materials are brought into contact and then separated. Examples of tribocharging include walking on a rug, rubbing a plastic comb against dry hair, rubbing a balloon against a sweater, ascending from a fabric car seat, or removing some types of plastic packaging. In all these cases, the breaking of contact between two materials results in tribocharging, thus creating a difference of electrical potential that can lead to an ESD event.
Another cause of ESD damage is through electrostatic induction. This occurs when an electrically charged object is placed near a conductive object isolated from the ground. The presence of the charged object creates an electrostatic field that causes electrical charges on the surface of the other object to redistribute. Even though the net electrostatic charge of the object has not changed, it now has regions of excess positive and negative charges. An ESD event may occur when the object comes into contact with a conductive path. For example, charged regions on the surfaces of styrofoam cups or bags can induce potential on nearby ESD sensitive components via electrostatic induction and an ESD event may occur if the component is touched with a metallic tool.
ESD can also be caused by energetic charged particles impinging on an object. This causes increasing surface and deep charging. This is a known hazard for most spacecraft.