Killer Electrons From Space!

Space travel is dangerous, make no mistake. So many ways to die. But now scientists think they’ve got a handle on how one of the threats operates: killer electrons from space.

Using data from a fleet of spacecraft, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have puzzled out how electromagnetic waves accelerate normal electrons in the Earth’s radiation belts to killer velocities. These electrons are then hazardous to satellites, spacecraft, and especially astronauts.

Their research, entitled The Energization of Relativistic Electrons in the Outer Van Allen Radiation Belt was published in the July issue of Nature Physics.

They measured the fluxes of electrons striking a satellite-mounted detector, and the converted the measurements to magnetic coordinates. This showed them that the local peaks in electrons could have only been caused by the acceleration of electrons by electromagnetic waves. They still don’t understand the exact mechanism that’s causing the acceleration, though.

Two new NASA spacecraft are due to be launched in 2012 – the Radiation Belt Storm probes – these will help scientists understand the mechanism more deeply.

Original Source: Los Alamos National Lab