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Speedy particles whip at nearly the speed of light in Earth’s radiation belt
The radiation-heavy Van Allen Belts around Earth contain particles that can move at almost the speed of light across vast distances, new research reveals. The information came from an instrument flown aboard the Van Allen Probes twin NASA spacecraft, which launched in 2012.
According to scientists, the process that creates this is similar to what happens in the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators. The magnetic field on the Earth accelerates electrons faster as these particles orbit the planet. While scientists had spotted this process happening at small scales before, the new paper has seen this across hundreds of thousands of kilometers or miles.
“With the Van Allen Probes, I like to think there’s no place for these particles to hide because each spacecraft is spinning and ‘glimpses’ the entire sky with its detector ‘eyes’, so we’re essentially getting a 360-degree view in terms of direction, position, energy, and time,” stated Harlan Spence, principal scientist for the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma (ECT) instrument aboard the probes, and co-author on the research paper. He is also director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.
The research was led by University of Alberta physicist Ian Mann, and is available in Nature Communications. “People have considered that this acceleration process might be present but we haven’t been able to see it clearly until the Van Allen Probes,” Mann stated.
Image credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta