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

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 Probes Play the Music of Earth’s Magnetosphere

Launched on August 30, 2012, NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellites have captured recordings of audible-range radio waves emitted by Earth’s magnetosphere. The stream of chirps and whistles heard in the video above consist of 5 separate occurrences captured on September 5 by RBSP’s Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) instrument.

The events are presented as a single continuous recording, assembled by the (EMFISIS) team at the University of Iowa and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Called a “chorus”, this phenomenon has been known for quite some time.

“People have known about chorus for decades,” says EMFISIS principal investigator Craig Kletzing of the University of Iowa. “Radio receivers are used to pick it up, and it sounds a lot like birds chirping. It was often more easily picked up in the mornings, which along with the chirping sound is why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘dawn chorus.’”

The radio waves, which are at frequencies that are audible to the human ear, are emitted by energetic particles within Earth’s magnetosphere, which in turn affects (and is affected by) the radiation belts.

The RBSP mission placed a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that will take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations — as well as across larger areas.

Read: New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts

Audio Credit: University of Iowa. Visualisation Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. (H/T to Peter Sinclair at climatecrocks.com.)

What Are The Radiation Belts?

NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellites, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Friday, August 24* at 4:08 a.m. ET, will enter into an eccentric orbit around our planet, repeatedly passing through both of the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth like enormous high-intensity particle filled inner tubes. The plasma contained within these belts can affect satellites, spacecraft and communication here on Earth, and are affected in turn by outbursts of solar energy from the Sun — especially during periods of solar maximum. But how do these invisible yet powerful radiation belts actually work, and how will two six-foot-wide satellites help us learn more about them? Watch the video.

(And then read more here.)

Video: NASA

*UPDATE: After several delays due to weather and technical issues, the RBSP mission successfully launched on Thursday, August 30.

New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts


Surrounding our planet like vast invisible donuts (the ones with the hole, not the jelly-filled kind) are the Van Allen radiation belts, regions where various charged subatomic particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields, forming rings of plasma. We know that the particles that make up this plasma can have nasty effects on spacecraft electronics as well as human physiology, but there’s a lot that isn’t known about the belts. Two new satellites scheduled to launch on August 23 August 24 will help change that.

“Particles from the radiation belts can penetrate into spacecraft and disrupt electronics, short circuits or upset memory on computers. The particles are also dangerous to astronauts traveling through the region. We need models to help predict hazardous events in the belts and right now we are aren’t very good at that. RBSP will help solve that problem.”
– David Sibeck, RBSP project scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will put a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations and across larger areas.

“Definitely the biggest challenge that we face is the radiation environment that the probes are going to be flying through,” said Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton at APL. “Most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts — and we’re going to be flying right through the heart of them.”

Read: The Van Allen Belts and the Great Electron Escape

Each 8-sided RBSP satellite is approximately 6 feet (1.8 meters) across and weighs 1,475 pounds (669 kg).

The goal is to find out where the particles in the belts originate from — do they come from the solar wind? Or Earth’s own ionosphere? — as well as to find out what powers the belts’ variations in size and gives the particles their extreme speed and energy. Increased knowledge about Earth’s radiation belts will also help in the understanding of the plasma environment that pervades the entire Universe.

Read: What Are The Radiation Belts?

Ultimately the information gathered by the RBSP mission will help in the design of future science and communications satellites as well as safer spacecraft for human explorers.

The satellites are slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than 4:08 a.m. EDT on August 24.

Find out more about the RBSP mission here.

Video/rendering: NASA/GSFC.