Van Allen probes catch rare glimpse of supercharged radiation belt

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Our planet is nestled in the center of two immense, concentric doughnuts of powerful radiation: the Van Allen radiation belts, which harbor swarms of charged particles that are trapped by Earth's magnetic field. On March 17, 2015, an interplanetary shock - a shockwave created by the driving force of a coronal mass ejection, or CME, from the sun - struck Earth's magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, triggering the greatest geomagnetic storm of the preceding decade. And NASA's Van Allen Probes were there to watch the effects on the radiation belts. One of the most common forms of space weather, a geomagnetic storm describes any event in which the magnetosphere is suddenly, temporarily disturbed. Such an event can also lead to change in the radiation belts surrounding Earth, but researchers have seldom been able to observe what happens. But on the day of the March 2015 geomagnetic storm, one of the Van Allen Probes was orbiting right through the belts, providing unprecedentedly high-resolution data from a rarely witnessed phenomenon. A paper on these observations was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research on Aug. 15, 2016. Researchers want to study the complex space environment around Earth because the radiation and energy there can impact our satellites in a wide variety of ways - from interrupting onboard electronics to increasing frictional drag to disrupting communications and navigation signals. "We study radiation belts because they pose a hazard to spacecraft and astronauts," said David Sibeck, the Van Allen Probes mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who was not involved with the paper. "If you knew how bad the radiation could get, you would build a better spacecraft to accommodate that." Studying the radiation belts is one part of our efforts to monitor, study and understand space weather. NASA launched the twin Van Allen Probes in 2012 to understand the fundamental physical processes that create this harsh environment so that scientists can develop better models of the radiation belts. These spacecraft were specifically designed to withstand the constant bombardment of radiation in this area and to continue to collect data even under the most intense conditions. A set of observations on how the radiation belts respond to a significant space weather storm, from this harsh space environment, is a goldmine.

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