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LASP instrument reveals a particle accelerator in near-Earth space

July 25, 2013
Data collected from the LASP-built instrument, pictured here before its integration with the Van Allen Probes mission, has revealed a third radiation belt encircling Earth. (Courtesy JHUAPL)

Data collected from the LASP-built instrument, pictured here before its integration with the Van Allen Probes mission, has been used to identify an energetic particle accelerator contained within the Van Allen radiation belts. (Courtesy JHU/APL)

LASP director and research scientist Dan Baker is co-author of new research that indicates that a massive particle accelerator exists in the Van Allen radiation belts, a harsh band of super-energetic, charged particles surrounding our planet. The results were published in Science magazine today.

The science team discovered these new results through analysis of data taken by the LASP-built Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) instrument aboard NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission, formerly called the Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission. The data show that the newly discovered acceleration energy is in the belts themselves: particles inside the belts are sped up by a local kick of energy, buffeting the particles to ever-faster speeds, much like a perfectly timed push on a moving child’s swing.

Baker said, “I think we are now getting a crash course in true radiation belt physics. Always before we were nibbling at the edges or looking through a cloudy screen. Now things are incredibly clear. With our beautiful new sensors, we can see almost every ‘thumbprint’ of every large solar storm that has impressed itself on the Earth’s radiation belts. Very nice indeed!”

The discovery that the particles are accelerated by a local energy source is akin to the discovery that hurricanes grow from a local energy source, such as a region of warm ocean water. In the case of the radiation belts, the source is a region of intense electromagnetic waves. Knowing the location of the acceleration will help scientists improve space weather predictions, since changes in the radiation belts can be risky for satellites and other space-based technologies near Earth.

More information

NASA Van Allen Probes: http://www.nasa.gov/vanallenprobes
LASP Mission Quick Facts: http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/missions-projects/quick-facts-rbsp

Contact

LASP/CU-Boulder:

  • Dan Baker, LASP Director: 303-492-4509 or dan.baker@lasp.colorado.edu

CU-Boulder:

  • Jim Scott, CU media relations: 303-492-3114 or Jim.Scott@colorado.edu

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