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A Long-Lived Relativistic Electron Storage Ring Embedded in Earth’s Outer Van Allen Belt

Science  12 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6129, pp. 186-190
DOI: 10.1126/science.1233518

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Van Allen Variation

The two rings of relativistic particles called Van Allen Belts that encircle Earth were discovered during the space age, and are known to pose risks to satellites in geostationary orbit. NASA launched twin spacecraft, the Van Allen Probes, on 30 August 2012 to measure and characterize Earth's radiation belt regions. Baker et al. (p. 186, published online 28 February) have shown that a third, unexpected and temporary, radiation belt formed on 2 September 2012 to disappear 4 weeks later in response to changes in the solar wind.

Abstract

Since their discovery more than 50 years ago, Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts have been considered to consist of two distinct zones of trapped, highly energetic charged particles. The outer zone is composed predominantly of megaelectron volt (MeV) electrons that wax and wane in intensity on time scales ranging from hours to days, depending primarily on external forcing by the solar wind. The spatially separated inner zone is composed of commingled high-energy electrons and very energetic positive ions (mostly protons), the latter being stable in intensity levels over years to decades. In situ energy-specific and temporally resolved spacecraft observations reveal an isolated third ring, or torus, of high-energy (>2 MeV) electrons that formed on 2 September 2012 and persisted largely unchanged in the geocentric radial range of 3.0 to ~3.5 Earth radii for more than 4 weeks before being disrupted (and virtually annihilated) by a powerful interplanetary shock wave passage.

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