Thanks to a shoebox-sized satellite built by University of Colorado students, a decades-old mystery surrounding the source of some potentially-damaging particles in our planet's radiation belts has been unraveled.

The mystery electrons in question exist in Earth's inner radiation belt, but their origins were unclear for the past 60 years, according to a Wednesday CU news release.

Data from the students' satellites showed the electrons are created by cosmic rays stemming from explosions of supernovas, said the study's lead author, Professor Xinlin Li who teaches in CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

"We are reporting the first direct detection of these energetic electrons near the inner edge of Earth's radiation belt," Li said. "We have finally solved a six-decade-long mystery."

The data showed cosmic rays entering Earth's atmosphere crash into neutral atoms, producing a "splash" that creates charged particles, including electrons, that get trapped by Earth's magnetic fields.

A paper about the discovery was published Wednesday in "Nature." The study was largely funded by the National Science Foundation.

Additional study co-authors include researcher Hong Zhao of LASP, graduate student Kun Zhang of CU Boulder aerospace engineering sciences and a handful of other scientists from across the country.

The findings are important because energetic electrons in near-Earth space can damage satellites and threaten the health of space-walking astronauts, Li said. CU has shined a light on these electrons, allowing for a better understanding and ability to predict the arrival of the potentially harmful particles.


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"This is really a beautiful result and a big insight derived from a remarkably inexpensive student satellite, illustrating that good things can come in small packages," said Daniel Baker, LASP director and "Nature" paper co-author.

"It's a major discovery that has been there all along, a demonstration that Yogi Berra was correct when he remarked 'You can observe a lot just by looking.'"

Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-473-1106, hernandeze@dailycamera.com