Probes sent into space by NASA to study the twin Van Allen radiation belts that circle the planet recently found a third band of radiation that burst into view and then disappeared.
No one is more surprised at this finding than the NASA scientists themselves, who reported the discovery Thursday.
The discovery has stunned scientists and has sent them back to the drawing board regarding what they thought they knew about the radiation environment above Earth, reports the Washington Post
The implications of the discovery could very well affect proposed human deep-space missions.
NASA launched the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes or, as they are now known, the Van Allen Probes, on Aug. 30 to try to better understand the workings of the region.
A radiation-detection instrument was scheduled to begin functioning a month later, but mission scientists decided to turn it on early.
Just three days after the launch and only one day after the instrument powered up, the third belt appeared.
At first, scientists thought what they were seeing had to be a technical glitch.
“We initially thought, ‘This looks odd, maybe something’s screwed up with our instrument,’” said Shri Kanekal, a mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“But as days went by [the third belt] just stood there. We checked our instrument and became more and more confident there was not something wrong.”
Formed between the two known belts, the third belt vanished about a month later when a blast of energy from the sun blew past Earth.
Such solar weather can warp and compress the outer Van Allen belt, but earlier missions had never seen a third belt form.
Researchers are now trying to figure out why the band of high-energy electrons existed only temporarily. They want to know why it did not quickly merge with the outer belt, as predicted by current understanding of the physics of the region.
“We don’t know why we haven’t seen this before,” said Kanekal.
“We don’t know if it’s a rare phenomenon. Even after 50 years, nature is still capable of surprising us.”
In 1958, NASA satellites recorded two zones of dangerous electron and proton radiation extending 12,000 miles beyond Earth.
The zones were named for astrophysicist James Van Allen, who discovered them after analyzing data gathered by the satellites.
These dual doughnut-shaped regions are considered the first major discovery of the space age.
Being able to predict sudden increases in near-Earth radiation could help steer future human space missions away from dangerous doses.
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