Six-decade-old space puzzle resolved with shoe box sized satellite

University of Colorado Boulder
Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists solved a 60-year-old celestial mystery using data from a shoebox-sized satellite built and operated by college students. Earth is encircled by swarms of charged particles, starting from 500km out to a distance of 58,000km, all walked together by our planet’s magnetic field. They form the Van Allen belts, can harm the electronics and sensors in passing satellites and space probes and can subject spacewalkers to doses of radiation.

There are two apparently permanent radiation belts, defined as the inner edge and outer edge, plus a temporary one spotted in 2013. When the first pair was found in 1958, scientists suggested that the particles within the regions were put there by a method called cosmic ray albedo neutron decay, in which cosmic rays break into neutral atoms, inducing them to break apart into protons and electrons. Earth’s magnetic field then traps These charged particles and form the belts.

Now, a paper issued in Nature on Wednesday this week explains how a team of boffins discovered electrons in the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belt, verifying the earlier theory.

Xinlin Li, the lead writer of the paper and a professor at the laboratory for atmospheric and space physics, said: “We are reporting the first direct disclosure of these energetic electrons near the inner edge of Earth’s radiation belt. We have ultimately solved a six-decade-long secret.” The teamwork explains that the particles are created by deadly cosmic rays fired from supernova explosions. These strong rays ram atoms near Earth, causing the neutrons to decay into protons and particles via the CRAND process, and these offshoots get caught up in the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team utilized a small shoe-box sized particle telescope which was made by undergraduate and graduate students at the university and blasted into orbit in 2014 as a CubeSat mission to map the flux of energetic solar protons and electrons from the radiation belt over two years. Daniel Baker, co-author of the paper and a professor also at the university’s space physics lab, called the result “a major discovery,” adding that “you can recognize a lot just by looking.”

These conclusions show that cutting-edge scientific analysis isn’t unquestionably reserved for the top PhD experts in the field. A student satellite was able to provide data that we couldn’t confirm for years and reinforce the idea that science is for everyone. You don’t require a ton of money, tools, and connections to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. With a zeal to think outside of the box and innovate in creative ways, nearly anything is possible.

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