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Star Trek-like shield found thousands of kilometres above the Earth

The Van Allen belts. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

The Van Allen belts. Credit: Andy Kale, University of Alberta

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, November 26, 2014, 6:24 PM - Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered an invisible, 'Star Trek-like' shield more than 11,500 km above the Earth that's influenced by space weather. The shield could be protecting the planet from electrons that zip around close to the speed of light, damaging satellites and degrading space systems during solar storms, as well as putting astronauts at risk.

The barrier was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, a pair of doughnut-shaped rings above the Earth filled with electrons and protons says Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, the lead author in the study.

The Van Allen radiation belts are held in place by the Earth's magnetic field and can grow and shrink in response to energy from the sun. They extend more than 40,000 km above the Earth's surface and were first detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. 

In 2013 Baker, a former student of Van Allen's, used data from NASA probes to discover a third "storage ring" between the two Van Allen belts which seems to fluctuate according to the intensity of space weather.

It appears to be steering dangerous electrons away from Earth.

"It's almost like ... electrons are running into a glass wall in space," Baker says in a statement. 

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"Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It's an extremely puzzling phenomenon."

It was originally believed the electrons were drifting downward into our planet's upper atmosphere where they would be obliterated by air molecules -- but new data has revealed that the electrons are being stopped long before that.

Baker says that more study needs to be done to fully understand the phenomenon.

"I think the key here is to keep observing the region in exquisite detail, which we can do because of the powerful instruments on the [NASA] Van Allen probes," he says.

A complete paper on the study can be found in the Nov. 27 edition of the journal Nature.


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