An Astronomical First! A Radiation Belt Seen Outside the Solar System

Artist’s impression of an aurora and the surrounding radiation belt of the ultracool dwarf LSR J1835+3259. Credit: Chuck Carter/Melodie Kao/Heising-Simons Foundation)

In 1958, the first satellites launched by the United States (Explorer 1 and 3) detected a massive radiation belt around planet Earth. This confirmed something that many scientists suspected before the Space Age began: that energetic particles emanating from the Sun (solar wind) were captured and held around the planet by Earth’s magnetosphere. This region was named the Van Allen Belt in honor of University of Iowa professor James Van Allen who led the research effort. As robotic missions explored more of the Solar System, scientists discovered similar radiation belts around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Given the boom in extrasolar planet research, scientists have eagerly awaited the day when a Van Allen Belt would be discovered around an exoplanet. Thanks to a team of astronomers led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), that day may have arrived! Using the global High Sensitivity Array (HSA), the team obtained images of persistent, intense radio emissions from an ultracool dwarf star. These revealed the presence of a cloud of high-energy particles forming a massive radiation belt similar to what scientists have observed around Jupiter.

Continue reading “An Astronomical First! A Radiation Belt Seen Outside the Solar System”

We Might Have a New Way to Push Back Space Radiation

Artist's depiction with cutaway section of the two giant donuts of radiation, called the Van Allen Belts, that surround Earth. Credit: NASA

Human beings have known for quite some time that our behavior has a significant influence on our planet. In fact, during the 20th century, humanity’s impact on the natural environment and climate has become so profound that some geologists began to refer to the modern era as the “Anthropocene”. In this age, human agency is the most deterministic force on the planet.

But according to a comprehensive new study by an Anglo-American team of researchers, human beings might be shaping the near-space environment as well. According to the study, radio communications, EM radiation from nuclear testing and other human actions have led to the creation of a barrier around Earth that is shielding it against high-energy space radiation.

The study, which was published in the journal Space Science Reviews under the title “Anthropogenic Space Weather“, was conducted by a team of scientists from the US and Imperial College, London. Led by Dr. Tamas Gombosi, a professor at the University of Michigan and the director at the Center for Space Modelling, the team reviewed the impact anthropogenic processes have on Earth’s near-space environment.

These processes include VLF and radio-frequency (RF) radio communications, which began in earnest during the 19th century and grew considerably during the 20th century. Things became more intense during the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union began conducting high-altitude nuclear tests, which resulted in massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP) in Earth’s atmosphere.

To top it off, the creation of large-scale power grids has also had an impact on the near-space environment. As they state in their study:

“The permanent existence, and growth, of power grids and of VLF transmitters around the globe means that it is unlikely that Earth’s present-day space environment is entirely “natural” – that is, that the environment today is the environment that existed at the onset of the 19th century. This can be concluded even though there continue to exist major uncertainties as to the nature of the physical processes that operate under the influence of both the natural environment and the anthropogenically-produced waves.”

The existence of radiation belts (or “toroids”) around Earth has been a well-known fact since the late 1950s. These belts were found to be the result of charged particles coming from the Sun (i.e. “solar wind”) that were captured by and held around Earth by it’s magnetic field. They were named Van Allen Radiation Belts after their discover, the American space scientist James Van Allen.

The twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes, later renamed the Van Allen Probes. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The extent of these belts, their energy distribution and particle makeup has been the subject of multiple space missions since then. Similarly, studies began to be mounted around the same time to discover how human-generated charged particles, which would interact with Earth’s magnetic fields once they reached near-space, could contribute to artificial radiation belts.

However, it has been with the deployment of orbital missions like the Van Allen Probes (formerly the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) that scientists have been truly able to study these belts. In addition to the aforementioned Van Allen Belts, they have also taken note of the VLF bubble that radio transmissions have surrounded Earth with. As Phil Erickson, the assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory, said in a NASA press release:

“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth.”

One thing that the probes have noticed was the interesting way that the outward extent of the VLF bubble corresponds almost exactly to the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts. What’s more, comparisons between the modern extent of the radiations belts from the Van Allen Probe data shows that the inner boundary is much farther away than it appeared to be during the 1960s (when VLF transmissions were lower).

Two giant belts of radiation surround Earth. The inner belt is dominated by protons and the outer one by electrons. Credit: NASA

What this could mean is that the VLF bubble we humans have been creating for over a century and half has been removing excess radiation from the near-Earth environment. This could be good news for us, since the effects of charged particles on electronics and human health is well-documented. And during periods of intense space weather – aka. solar flares – the effects can be downright devastating.

Given the opportunity for further study, we may find ways to predictably and reliably use VLF transmissions to make the near-Earth environment more human and electronics-friendly. And with companies like SpaceX planning on bringing internet access to the world through broadband internet-providing satellites, and even larger plans for the commercialization of Near-Earth Orbit, anything that can mitigate the risk posed by radiation is welcome.

And be sure to check this video that illustrates the Van Allen Probes findings, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: NASA, Space Science Reviews

Twin NASA Probes Find “Zebra Stripes” in Earth’s Radiation Belt

Illustration of the twin Van Allen Probes (formerly Radiation Belt Storm Probes) in orbit (JHUAPL/NASA)

Earth’s inner radiation belt displays a curiously zebra-esque striped pattern, according to the latest findings from NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes. What’s more, the cause of the striping seems to be the rotation of the Earth itself — something that was previously thought to be impossible.

“…it is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

– Aleksandr Ukhorskiy, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Our planet is surrounded by two large doughnut-shaped regions of radiation called the Van Allen belts, after astrophysicist James Van Allen who discovered their presence in 1958. (Van Allen died at the age of 91 in 2006.) The inner Van Allen belt, extending from about 800 to 13,000 km (500 to 8,000 miles) above the Earth, contains high-energy electrons and protons and poses a risk to both spacecraft and humans, should either happen to spend any substantial amount of time inside it.

Read more: Surprising Third Radiation Belt Found Around Earth

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE) is a time-of-flight versus energy spectrometer (JHUAPL)
The Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE) is a time-of-flight versus energy spectrometer (JHUAPL)

Launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral AFS on the morning of Aug. 30, 2012, the Van Allen Probes (originally the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) are on a two-year mission to investigate the belts and find out how they behave and evolve over time.

One of the instruments aboard the twin probes, the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE), has detected a persistent striped pattern in the particles within the inner belt. While it was once thought that any structures within the belts were the result of solar activity, thanks to RBSPICE it’s now been determined that Earth’s rotation and tilted magnetic axis are the cause.

“It is because of the unprecedented high energy and temporal resolution of our energetic particle experiment, RBSPICE, that we now understand that the inner belt electrons are, in fact, always organized in zebra patterns,” said Aleksandr Ukhorskiy of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., co-investigator on RBSPICE and lead author of the paper. “Furthermore, our modeling clearly identifies Earth’s rotation as the mechanism creating these patterns. It is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

The model of the formation of the striped patterns is likened to the pulling of taffy.

RBSPICE data of stripes within the inner Van Allen belt (Click for animation) Credit: A. Ukhorskiy/JHUAPL
RBSPICE data of stripes within the inner Van Allen belt (Click for animation) Credit: A. Ukhorskiy/JHUAPL

“If the inner belt electron populations are viewed as a viscous fluid,” Ukhorskiy said, “these global oscillations slowly stretch and fold that fluid, much like taffy is stretched and folded in a candy store machine.”

“This finding tells us something new and important about how the universe operates,” said Barry Mauk, a project scientist at APL and co-author of the paper. “The new results reveal a new large-scale physical mechanism that can be important for planetary radiation belts throughout the solar system. An instrument similar to RBSPICE is now on its way to Jupiter on NASA’s Juno mission, and we will be looking for the existence of zebra stripe-like patterns in Jupiter’s radiation belts.”

Jupiter’s Van Allen belts are similar to Earth’s except much larger; Jupiter’s magnetic field is ten times stronger than Earth’s and the radiation in its belts is a million times more powerful (source). Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016 and spend about a year in orbit, investigating its atmosphere, interior, and magnetosphere.

Thanks to the Van Allen Probes. Juno now has one more feature to look for in Jupiter’s radiation belts.

“It is amazing how Earth’s space environment, including the radiation belts, continue to surprise us even after we have studied them for over 50 years. Our understanding of the complex structures of the belts, and the processes behind the belts’ behaviors, continues to grow, all of which contribute to the eventual goal of providing accurate space weather modeling.”

– Louis Lanzerotti, physics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and principal investigator for RBSPICE

The team’s findings have been published in the March 20 issue of the journal Nature.

The Van Allen Probes are the second mission in NASA’s Living With a Star program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The program explores aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.

Source: Van Allen Probes news release

NASA Launches Twin Probes to Study Earth’s Radiation Belts

After nearly a week of weather and technical delays, NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) launched in the early morning skies from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:05a.m. EDT (08:05 GMT) on Thursday, August 30, 2012. This will be the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our planet’s radiation belts.

“Scientists will learn in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles, what causes them to change and how these processes affect the upper reaches of the atmosphere around Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “The information collected from these probes will benefit the public by allowing us to better protect our satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth.”

The two satellites, launched from an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41, each weigh just under 680 kg (1,500 pounds) and comprise the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate this hazardous regions of near-Earth space, known as the radiation belts. These two belts, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, encircle the planet like donuts and are filled with highly charged particles. The belts are affected by solar storms and coronal mass ejections and sometimes swell dramatically. When this occurs, they can pose dangers to communications, GPS satellites and human spaceflight

Artist’s conception of RBSP satellite. Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

“We have never before sent such comprehensive and high-quality instruments to study high radiation regions of space,” said Barry Mauk, RBSP project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “RBSP was crafted to help us learn more about, and ultimately predict, the response of the radiation belts to solar inputs.”

The hardy RBSP satellites will spend the next 2 years looping through every part of both Van Allen belts. By having two spacecraft in different regions of the belts at the same time, scientists finally will be able to gather data from within the belts themselves, learning how they change over space and time. Designers fortified RBSP with special protective plating and rugged electronics to operate and survive within this punishing region of space that other spacecraft avoid. In addition, a space weather broadcast will transmit selected data from those instruments around the clock, giving researchers a check on current conditions near Earth.

“The excitement of seeing the spacecraft in orbit and beginning to perform science measurements is like no other thrill,” said Richard Fitzgerald, RBSP project manager at APL. “The entire RBSP team, from across every organization, worked together to produce an amazing pair of spacecraft.”

The first RBSP spacecraft separated from the Atlas rocket’s Centaur booster 1 hour, 18 minutes, 52 seconds after launch. The second RBSP spacecraft followed 12 minutes, 14 seconds later.

During the next 60 days, operators will power up all flight systems and science instruments and deploy long antenna booms, two of which are more than 54 yards long. Data about the particles that swirl through the belts, and the fields and waves that transport them, will be gathered by five instrument suites designed and operated by teams at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; the University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and the University of New Hampshire in Durham; and the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va. The data will be analyzed by scientists across the nation almost immediately.

The Van Allen Belts and the Great Electron Escape

Artist concept of the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes spacecraft, scheduled for launch in August 2012. Credit: NASA


During the 1950s and just before the great “Space Race” began, scientists like Kristian Birkeland, Carl Stormer, and Nicholas Christofilos had been paying close attention to a theory – one that involved trapped, charged particles in a ring around the Earth. This plasma donut held in place by our planet’s magnetic field was later confirmed by the first three Explorer missions under the direction of Dr. James Van Allen. Fueled by perhaps solar winds, or cosmic rays, the knowledge of their existence was the stuff of nightmares for an uniformed public. While the “radiation” can affect objects passing through it, it doesn’t reach Earth, and this realization quickly caused fears to die. However, there are still many unanswered questions about the Van Allen Radiation Belts that mystify modern science.

Over the years we’ve learned these radiation zones are comprised of electrons and energetically charged particles. We’ve documented the fact they can both shrink and swell according to the amount of solar energy they receive, but what researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint is exactly what causes these responses. Particles come and particles go – but there isn’t a solid answer without evidence. A pertinent question has been to determine if particles escape into interplanetary space when the belts shrink – or do they fall to Earth? Up until now, it’s been an enigma, but a new study employing several spacecraft at the same time has been to trace the particles and follow the trail up.

“For a long time, it was thought particles would precipitate downward out of the belts,” says Drew Turner, a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and first author on a paper on these results appearing online in Nature Physics on January 29, 2012. “But more recently, researchers theorized that maybe particles could sweep outward. Our results for this event are clear: we saw no increase in downward precipitation.”

From October to December 2003, the radiation belts swelled and shrank in response to geomagnetic storms as particles entered and escaped the belts. Credit: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

This isn’t just a simple answer to simple question, though. Understanding the movement of the particles can play a critical role in protecting our satellite systems as they pass through the Van Allen Belts – and its far reaching radiation extensions. As we know, the Sun produces copious amounts of charged particles in the stellar winds and – at times – can blast in our direction during coronal mass ejections (CMEs) or shock fronts caused by fast solar winds overtaking slower winds called co-rotating interaction regions -CIRs). When directed our way, they disrupt Earth’s magnetosphere in an event known as a geomagnetic storm. During a “storm” the radiation belt particles have been known to decrease and empty the belt within hours… a depletion which can last for days. While this is documented, we simply don’t know the cause, much less what causes the particles to leave!

In order to get a firmer grip on what’s happening requires multiple spacecraft measuring the changes at multiple points at the same time. This allows scientists to determine if an action that happens in one place affects another elsewhere. While we look forward to the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission results, it isn’t scheduled to launch until August 2012. In the interim, researchers have combined data from two widely separated spacecraft to get an early determination of what happens during a loss event.

“We are entering an era where multi-spacecraft are key,” says Vassilis Angelopoulos, a space scientist at UCLA, and the principal investigator for THEMIS and a coauthor on the paper. “Being able to unite a fleet of available resources into one study is becoming more of a necessity to turn a corner in our understanding of Earth’s environment.”

So where did this early support information come from? Fortunately the team was able to observe a small geomagnetic storm which occurred on January 6, 2011. By engaging the the three NASA THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) spacecraft, two GOES (Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite), operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and six POES (Polar Operational Environmental Satellite), run jointly by NOAA, and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) spacecraft, they were able to catch electrons moving close to the speed of light as they dropped out of the belt for over six hours. Orbiting Earth’s equatorial zones, the THEMIS and GOES spacecraft are just part of the team. The POES spacecraft passes through the radiation belts several times a day as it cruises at a lower altitude and near the poles. By combining data, the scientists were able to take several observational vantage points and proved – without a doubt – that the particles left the belt by way of space and did not return to Earth.

“This was a very simple storm,” says Turner. “It’s not an extreme case, so we think it’s probably pretty typical of what happens in general and ongoing results from concurrent statistical studies support this.”

During this time, the spacecraft also observed a low-density area of the Van Allen belts which appeared along the periphery and traveled inward. This appeared to be an indication the particles were outward bound. If this was a normal occurrence, it stands to reason that a type of “wave” must assist the motion, allowing the particles to reach the outer escape boundary. Discovering just what exactly triggers this escape mechanism will be one of the jobs for RBSP, says David Sibeck at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is NASA’s mission scientist for RBSP and project scientist for THEMIS.

“This kind of research is a key to understanding, and eventually predicting, hazardous events in the Earth’s radiation belts,” says Sibeck. “It’s a great comprehensive example of what we can expect to see throughout the forthcoming RBSP mission.”

Original Story Source: NASA THEMIS News Release.