A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called “killer electrons,” which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.The barrier to the particle motion was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped rings above Earth that are filled with high-energy electrons and protons, said Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Held in place by Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen radiation belts periodically swell and shrink in response to incoming energy disturbances from the sun.
As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be comprised of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth’s surface. In 2013, Baker—who received his doctorate under Van Allen—led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.
The latest mystery revolves around an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultrafast electrons from breeching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker, the study’s lead author. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”
A paper on the subject was published in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature.
This animated gif shows how particles move through Earth’s radiation belts, the large donuts around Earth. The sphere in the middle shows a cloud of colder material called the plasmasphere. New research shows that the plasmasphere helps keep fast electrons from the radiation belts away from Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio
The team originally thought the highly charged electrons, which are looping around Earth at more than 100,000 miles per second, would slowly drift downward into the upper atmosphere and gradually be wiped out by interactions with air molecules. But the impenetrable barrier seen by the twin Van Allen belt spacecraft stops the electrons before they get that far, said Baker.