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It was more than fifty years ago that scientists first discovered that the Earth was surrounded by two doughnut-shaped regions of charged and highly energetic particles which had derived from intense solar winds and become trapped in the Earth’s natural magnetic fields. Ever since the doughnuts were discovered, scientists have presumed that the highly charged particles were far too dangerous to get too close to. However, new research from NASA now suggests that these fears may have been completely unfounded.
NASA has made an important discovery about the Earth’s radiation belt and it could change space travel forever
The doughnut regions of highly charged particles are known as the Van Allen Belts perform a vital role in the survival of the planet. They form part of the natural barrier of Earth that guards the planet against the harsh radiation of the sun. In keeping with their role, the size of the belts fluctuates rather wildly depending on how powerful the solar activity is at any given time. The inner belt usually stretches around 400 to 6,000 miles above Earth’s surface and the outer belt occupies a space of between 8,400 to 36,000 miles. In addition to that, there is some evidence to suggest that a third temporal belt sometimes appears during times of frenetic solar activity.
To examine the Van Allen Belts in 2012, NASA sent two specialized probes to fly through the region at speeds of around 2000mph. The probes discovered that lying between the two belts was a void, known as the slot region. The probes also found that the most dangerous and energetic particles in the inner Van Allen Belt were often absent and only seemed to spring up at times of intense solar activity.
The implications of this simple observation are huge. For many years, scientists and engineers have been over-estimating how dangerous the Van Allen Belts could be for spacecraft and have been designing bulky and highly expensive spacecraft to cope with the supposed threat. Now NASA is aware that the Van Allen Belts are only dangerous during periods of intense solar storms they have been handed an opportunity to completely modify their approach to the design of spacecraft. “This opens up the possibility of doing science that previously was not possible, “says Shri Kanekal, a Van Allen Probes scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.