Researchers Find That Earth’s “Plasmaspheric Hiss” Protects Against A Harmful Radiation Belt
High above Earth’s atmosphere, electrons whiz past at close to the speed of light. Such ultrarelativistic electrons, which make up the outer band of the Van Allen radiation belt, can streak around the planet in a mere five minutes, bombarding anything in their path. Exposure to such high-energy radiation can wreak havoc on satellite electronics, and pose serious health risks to astronauts.
Now researchers at MIT, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere have found there’s a hard limit to how close ultrarelativistic electrons can get to the Earth. The team found that no matter where these electrons are circling around the planet’s equator, they can get no further than about 11,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface — despite their intense energy.
What’s keeping this high-energy radiation at bay seems to be neither the Earth’s magnetic field nor long-range radio waves, but rather a phenomenon termed “plasmaspheric hiss” — very low-frequency electromagnetic waves in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that, when played through a speaker, resemble static, or white noise.
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