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Forget Sharknado, there's a radioactive hurricane around Earth!

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 26th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists studying the Van Allen belts have discovered new insights into how they function, which has implications for human space travel.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - There are at least two layers of charged plasma around the Earth, discovered in 1958 and dubbed the "Van Allen Belts" after the researcher who led the team that confirmed and mapped their existence.

A third, less strong belt was also recently observed.

The belts extend from about 600 to 1,000 miles above Earth and are a significant hazard to both spacecraft and astronauts. The belts, especially the larger outer one, rings the Earth like a doughnut.

These belts are a product of Earth's magnetic field and are filled with supercharged particles that zip about at velocities near the speed of light.

Scientists want to study and understand these belts because they create a virtual no-fly zone for spacecraft and astronauts. Any craft expected to pass through them for an extended period must be shielded against the radiation it will encounter. Plans to create long-term habitats for people in space will also have to account for the belts. The inner belt can, under certain conditions, descend to regions where astronauts currently travel, to within 200 miles of the Earth's surface.

Knowing more about these belts can help scientists plan better strategies for dealing with radiation in space. A major question they have asked is why the radiation in the belts is so intense.

Until now, is was suspected that highly-charged particles from space were simply trapped by the Earth in these belts and continued to race about near the speed of light. However, measurements taken by specially designed satellites now suggest the particles are being accelerated by the Earth itself, which works as a giant dynamo, supercharging atomic particles into radioactive plasma.

This "storm" of supercharged plasma has been recently described as a "hurricane" with scientists comparing the acceleration to the way warm ocean water fuels a hurricane.

Although most people may not understand the complex physics behind particle acceleration within the Van Allen belts, what we need to know is this: We now have a better understanding of what was previously a poorly understood, dangerous part of space.

Future astronauts and satellites operating in that region will now be better protected since we have a better understanding of what happens in the belts. How that understanding will translate into improvements is yet undetermined, but we now know more than we did before, and that's a good thing.

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