Nav: Home

UNH researchers discover effect of rare solar wind on Earth's radiation belts

October 11, 2016

DURHAM, N.H. - Researchers from the University of New Hampshire have captured unique measurements of the Van Allen radiation belts, which circle the Earth, during an extremely rare solar wind event. The findings, which have never been reported before, may be helpful in protecting orbiting telecommunication and navigational satellites, and possibly future astronauts, by helping to more accurately predict space conditions near Earth, as well as around more remote planets.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications and can be viewed here: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/161003/ncomms13001/full/ncomms13001.html

The UNH researchers used data from more than 10 spacecrafts, including information from a UNH-led instrument on board NASA's Van Allen Probes twin satellites, to get measurements of both the Earth's inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts, two donut-shaped regions of high-energy particles trapped by Earth's magnetic field, during the uncommon solar wind conditions. The results revealed valuable information of unexpected and dramatic changes in the radiation belts allowing scientists to explore the effect of similar conditions around other Earth-like planets at other stars.

"What makes this very exciting is that this type of interaction between the sun and a planet rarely happens for Earth but it's believed to be a frequent occurrence for other Earth-like extrasolar planets," said Noé Lugaz, a research associate professor at UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS), and lead author of the study. "Since the closest of these extrasolar planets is several light years away, these measurements help give us a sense of the radiation conditions that might be occurring around some of those distant worlds, that will never be visited in our lifetime."

Earth is embedded in the always-expanding atmosphere of the sun, called the solar wind, which blows past planets to the edge of the solar system. Typically, the solar wind is supersonic, faster than the speed of sound. When the solar wind encounters planets, like Earth, a shock wave is created that slows the wind down and deflects it around the planet. However, during the unusual episode, which was caused by the passage of a solar eruption over Earth, the data recorded by the researchers showed the solar wind became subsonic, or slower than the speed of sound. During this interval is when the researchers recorded measurements of the Van Allen radiations belts, and found that the outer belt was not as calm as expected. Two unusual phenomena occurred; a long-lasting electron drop in the Earth's radiation belts and large oscillations in the magnetic field.

"This is the first time detailed measurements of the Earth's radiation belts have ever been recorded during such rare conditions," said Harlan Spence, director of EOS at UNH and a co-author of the study. "There have only been a handful of these solar wind events since the beginning of space exploration."

When the Van Allen belts were first discovered in the 1950s they were thought to be relatively stable structures, but subsequent observations have shown they are dynamic and mysterious. Unlocking these mysteries could be valuable for newer technologies like telecommunication and GPS satellites which spend most of their time in the Van Allen belts.
-end-
The University of New Hampshire is a flagship research university that inspires innovation and transforms lives in our state, nation and world. More than 16,000 students from all 50 states and 71 countries engage with an award-winning faculty in top ranked programs in business, engineering, law, liberal arts and the sciences across more than 200 programs of study. UNH's research portfolio includes partnerships with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, receiving more than $100 million in competitive external funding every year to further explore and define the frontiers of land, sea and space.

University of New Hampshire

Related Solar Wind Articles:

New research helps explain why the solar wind is hotter than expected
When the sun expels plasma, the solar wind cools as it expands through space -- but not as much as the laws of physics would predict.
Solar wind samples suggest new physics of massive solar ejections
A new study led by the University of Hawai'i (UH) at Mānoa has helped refine understanding of the amount of hydrogen, helium and other elements present in violent outbursts from the Sun, and other types of solar 'wind,' a stream of ionized atoms ejected from the Sun.
Supporting structures of wind turbines contribute to wind farm blockage effect
Much about the aerodynamic effects of larger wind farms remains poorly understood.
Parker Solar Probe traces solar wind to its source on sun's surface: coronal holes
New data from the Parker Solar Probe, which got closer to the sun than any other spacecraft, allowed physicists to map the source of a major component of the solar wind that continually peppers Earth.
Closest-ever approach to the sun gives new insights into the solar wind
The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, which has flown closer to the sun than any mission before, has found new evidence of the origins of the solar wind.
SwRI-built instrument confirms solar wind slows farther away from the Sun
Measurements taken by the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft are providing important new insights from some of the farthest reaches of space ever explored.
Switching to solar and wind will reduce groundwater use
IIASA researchers explored optimal pathways for managing groundwater and hydropower trade-offs for different water availability conditions as solar and wind energy start to play a more prominent role in the state of California.
Solar and wind energy preserve groundwater for drought, agriculture
A Princeton University-led study in Nature Communications is among the first to show that solar and wind energy not only enhance drought resilience, but also aid in groundwater sustainability.
Researchers recreate the sun's solar wind and plasma 'burps' on Earth
A new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison physicists mimicked solar winds in the lab, confirming how they develop and providing an Earth-bound model for the future study of solar physics.
Spacecraft measurements reveal mechanism of solar wind heating
Queen Mary University of London has led a study which describes the first direct measurement of how energy is transferred from the chaotic electromagnetic fields in space to the particles that make up the solar wind, leading to the heating of interplanetary space.
More Solar Wind News and Solar Wind Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.