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Van Allen probes pinpoint driver of speeding electrons

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Researchers believe they have solved a lingering mystery about how electrons within Earth’s radiation belt can suddenly become energetic enough to kill orbiting satellites. Thanks to data gathered from an intrepid pair of NASA probes roaming the harsh space environment within the Van Allen radiation belts, scientists have identified an internal electron accelerator operating within the belts.
“For years we thought the Van Allen belts were pretty well behaved and changed slowly,” said Geoffrey Reeves of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Intelligence and Space Research Division. “With more measurements, however, we realized how quickly and unpredictably the radiation belts change, and now we have real evidence that the changes originate from within the belts themselves.”
In a paper released today in Science Express, Reeves and colleagues from the University of New Hampshire, University of Colorado at Boulder, NASA Goddard Flight Center, Aerospace Corporation, University of California-Los Angeles, and University of Iowa, describe a mechanism by which electrons suddenly accelerate to fantastic speeds within the Van Allen belts— a pair of donut shaped zones of charged particles that surround Earth and occupy the inner region of our planet’s Magnetosphere.


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