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New Twists in Earth's Radiation Belts

Rings of high-energy particles encircling our planet change more than researchers realized. Those variations could amplify damage from solar storms

Daniel Baker

Late in the evening of January 31, 1958, a 32-ton Juno I rocket blasted into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, lofting the Explorer I spacecraft into orbit. It was a mission of firsts: Explorer I was the first U.S. satellite (joining Sputnik 2, which had been launched the previous November by the Soviet Union). The satellite carried a pioneering scientific payload, prepared at the State University of Iowa by a team of researchers led by James A. Van Allen. And the instruments on Explorer I made the first revolutionary discovery of the Space Age: Earth is enshrouded in doughnut-shaped rings, or toroids, of high-energy, high-intensity radiation. 2014-09BakerF1.jpgClick to Enlarge Image

The discovery of those radiation belts—now called the Van Allen belts—revealed how Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the space environment around it. The field, generated by Earth’s molten metallic core and planetary spin, creates the magnetosphere, a magnetic bubble surrounding the planet; the size and shape of the magnetosphere change in response to the blowing of the solar wind, the constant stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun. The magnetosphere is crucial to life on Earth; it shields the atmosphere, as well as life on the surface, from damage by the solar wind and by even more energetic cosmic rays. But close in, Earth’s magnetic field lines trap and accelerate free-floating particles, largely protons and electrons, and bounce them back and forth between the poles of the planet. Those zones of trapped, agitated particles make up the Van Allen belts that Explorer I flew through. It was discovered that the belts took the form of two concentric rings: The inner belt extends from an altitude of about 1,000 to 6,000 kilometers above Earth, whereas the outer belt spans from about 13,000 to 60,000 kilometers.

Earth’s Van Allen belts are imperfect shields, however. High-speed particles can leak from the belts and collide with molecules in the atmosphere, giving rise to aurora displays. If there is a major magnetic eruption on the Sun, the resulting outrush of particles may break through the outer magnetosphere and overload the Van Allen belts in more destructive ways. The rapid injection of particles into the belts can damage the circuitry and solar panels on satellites in orbit; swarms of protons and electrons released when solar wind particles crash into the atmosphere induce electrical currents that can overload terrestrial power systems and cause blackouts.

Almost exactly a century preceding the Explorer I launch, on the night of August 28 to 29, 1859, people around the world got to witness what happens when an enormous solar storm overwhelms Earth’s magnetosphere. The New York Times reported that thousands of New Yorkers watched “the heavens…arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years.” An even more spectacular aurora display occurred on September 2, when the sky lit up as far south as Central America in the Northern Hemisphere. Disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field were so powerful that magnetometer readings were driven off their scales. Telegraph networks were unusable for nearly eight hours in most parts of the world due to high-energy particles in the atmosphere. In several regions, operators reported that their telegraphs were sparking from the electrical current induced by the aurora. Earth had experienced a one-two punch of solar storms the likes of which have not been recorded since.

Humanity was just beginning to develop electrical technology in 1859. There were no high-power electrical lines crisscrossing the continents, nor were there sensitive satellites orbiting Earth. In 1989, just before the rise of the Internet and GPS systems, a smaller but still potent solar storm demonstrated the heightened risk. The 1989 storm induced huge ground currents that knocked out Quebec’s electrical power grid and caused problems at 200 sites in the United States, particularly in regions situated on igneous rock because it resists conduction and therefore flows current into nearby wires. If another solar event like the one in 1989 happened today it could disrupt global communications, causing chaos for days. Another 1859-style superstorm could knock out some power grids and communications networks for weeks or more.

Our Sun operates on an 11-year cycle of activity, and today it is near the maximum of that pattern, meaning it could at any time produce large-scale events. In mid-July 2012, a solar storm of immense power narrowly missed the Earth; had it happened a week earlier, the planet might have been in the direct path of the blast. My colleagues and I are vigorously pursuing studies of space storms and the changes in our near-Earth space environment, which we lump under the term space weather. There is a pressing need for our technological society to understand in ever better detail the workings of the space environment around us. A clearer picture of the dynamics of the Van Allen belts is one important piece of this puzzle.

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