Electron Acceleration in the Heart of the Van Allen Radiation Belts

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Science  30 Aug 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6149, pp. 991-994
DOI: 10.1126/science.1237743

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Local Acceleration

How the electrons trapped in Earth-encircling Van Allen radiation belts get accelerated has been debated since their discovery in 1958. Reeves et al. (p. 991, published online 25 July) used data from the Van Allen Radiation Belt Storm Probes, launched by NASA on 30 August 2012, to discover that radiation belt electrons are accelerated locally by wave-particle interactions, rather than by radial transport from regions of weaker to stronger magnetic fields.


The Van Allen radiation belts contain ultrarelativistic electrons trapped in Earth’s magnetic field. Since their discovery in 1958, a fundamental unanswered question has been how electrons can be accelerated to such high energies. Two classes of processes have been proposed: transport and acceleration of electrons from a source population located outside the radiation belts (radial acceleration) or acceleration of lower-energy electrons to relativistic energies in situ in the heart of the radiation belts (local acceleration). We report measurements from NASA’s Van Allen Radiation Belt Storm Probes that clearly distinguish between the two types of acceleration. The observed radial profiles of phase space density are characteristic of local acceleration in the heart of the radiation belts and are inconsistent with a predominantly radial acceleration process.

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