A NASA mission that involves scientists from the University of Colorado has discovered a massive particle accelerator in the middle of one of the harshest regions of near-Earth space -- a discovery that could help improve predictions of space weather, officials announced today.
The massive particle accelerator was found in a region of super-energetic, charged particles surrounding the globe known as the Van Allen radiation belts.
Scientists say the new results show the acceleration energy is in the belts themselves. Those local bumps of energy kick particles inside the belts to ever-faster speeds. Scientists compare it to a well-timed push on a moving swing. By knowing the location of the acceleration in the radiation belts, researchers will be able to be more accurate in their predictions of space weather, which can be hazardous to satellites near Earth.
The radiation belts, they discovered, are in a constant state of change. The results are published today in the journal "Science."
CU Professor Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and study co-author, said researchers see case after case where the very high-energy electrons appear suddenly right in the heart of the outer belt.
“But now we can prove where the electrons originate from and we can see the waves -- and the lower energy ‘seed' particles -- from which the relativistic electrons grow," he said in a news release. "We can essentially peer into the inner workings of our local cosmic accelerator with unprecedented clarity.”
The discovery was made by using data from a NASA satellite and was led by a team of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and involved CU.