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Experts had long thought there were only two distinct regions of trapped radiation. But the third ring was spotted by twin Van Allen radiation probes NASA launched in 2012 to study the radiation belts which encircle Earth and can be hazardous to orbiting satellites and astronauts.
“This is the first time we have had such high-resolution instruments look at time, space and energy together in the outer belt,” said Daniel Baker from the University of Colorado in Boulder, who is lead author of the study. ”Previous observations of the outer radiation belt only resolved it as a single blurry element. When we turned REPT [the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope] on just two days after launch, a powerful electron acceleration event was already in progress, and we clearly saw the new belt and new slot between it and the outer belt.” According to mission scientists, the discovery demonstrates radiation belts are dynamic and flexible in nature, which provides a better understanding of how they respond to solar activity. However, the discovery might not have occurred had scientists followed standard operating procedures.
These layers of radiation are greatly affected by space weather and expand and contract depending upon the amount of energy sent to Earth from the sun and elsewhere. The Van Allen belts can extend into space from an altitude of about 1,000 to 60,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The belt closest to Earth is called the inner belt. It’s separated from the outer belt by an empty region of space. This gap between the two Van Allen belts is caused by low-frequency radio waves that eject energy particles which would otherwise accumulate there.
The Van Allen probes mission includes two spacecraft packed with identical instruments so that simultaneous measurements can be taken from different locations within the radiation belts. “The fantastic new capabilities and advances in technology in the Van Allen Probes have allowed scientists to see in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles and will provide insight on what causes them to change, and how these processes affect the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science.