Satellites may have short circuits if they encounter a burst of radiation in Earth orbit. And scientists have suggested that a new study of the shape of the Van Alain belt (an intensely infected area around our planet) may help to better protect them from this high level of environmental charge.
The astronauts in orbit are mostly protected from the Van Allen belt, since these amounts of radiation start 600 miles above the Earth’s surface. As a rule, astronauts in earth orbit make a rise of up to 250 miles in height. These belts extend to the height of geostationary satellites — 25,000 miles. This fact has been known for many decades, but scientists were able to discover a new connection between the behavior of a charged particle (in particular, electrons) and the shape of the belts.
“The shape of the belts is actually very different depending on what type of electron you are looking at,” said lead author of the Los Alamos National Laboratory of Intelligence and Space Research, Jeff Reeves, in a statement. “Electrons at different levels of energy in these regions are distributed differently.”
The shape of the Van Allen belt can vary widely depending on how energetic individual electrons are.
The belts were discovered by Explorer 1, the first American satellite launched into space in 1958. These belts got their name in honor of James Van Allen, the space scientist who designed the instrument, which fixed the rays, on this satellite. (He found fewer cosmic rays than expected, and suggested that this might be due to radiation belts confirmed in later missions). The shape of the belts changes depending on many factors, as if recently the Sun sent a solar flare that struck the Earth’s magnetic environment. Initially, scientists created a very simple picture of the belts: a small inner belt, empty space (the so-called slotted area) and an outer belt that has many electrons and is highly variable.
New research shows that these belts change very often. If, for example, a large solar storm occurs, the area merges into one large belt. Sometimes you can see a large inner belt and a small outer belt. There can only be an external belt, but the internal one is not visible at all.
Also in all belts are electrons with different energies. The inner belt has more electrons with low energies (as a rule), while the outer belt, on the contrary, is replete with electrons with high energies. The energy level of electrons depends on magnetic storms, as a result of which the belts dynamically change their size and shape relative to each other.
Van Allen probes launched by NASA in 2012 can measure more energy levels than previous attempts, thanks to sensitive instruments and a position above the atmosphere. Scientists hope to trace how the belts change and apply this to protect satellites.