Speedy Particles Whip At Nearly The Speed Of Light In Earth’s Radiation Belts

by Elizabeth Howell on December 4, 2013

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Artist's conception of NASA’s Van Allen Probes twin spacecraft. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

Artist’s conception of NASA’s Van Allen Probes twin spacecraft. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

The radiation-heavy Van Allen Belts around Earth contain particles that can move at almost the speed of light across vast distances, new research reveals. The information came from an instrument flown aboard the Van Allen Probes twin NASA spacecraft, which launched in 2012.

According to scientists, the process that creates this is similar to what happens in the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators. The magnetic field on the Earth accelerates electrons faster as these particles orbit the planet. While scientists had spotted this process happening at small scales before, the new paper has seen this across hundreds of thousands of kilometers or miles.

“With the Van Allen Probes, I like to think there’s no place for these particles to hide because each spacecraft is spinning and ‘glimpses’ the entire sky with its detector ‘eyes’, so we’re essentially getting a 360-degree view in terms of direction, position, energy, and time,” stated Harlan Spence, principal scientist for the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma (ECT) instrument aboard the probes, and co-author on the research paper. He is also director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

The research was led by University of Alberta physicist Ian Mann, and is available in Nature Communications. “People have considered that this acceleration process might be present but we haven’t been able to see it clearly until the Van Allen Probes,” Mann stated.

Source: University of New Hampshire


Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Aqua4U December 4, 2013 at 1:31 PM

Too bad access to the paper thru Nature Communications is not free…

UFOsMOTHER December 4, 2013 at 5:10 PM

Well said Aqua4U I agree with your comment

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