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Van Allen Particle Accelerator Discovered in Radiation Belt, NASA Says

Image: Van Allen Particle Accelerator Discovered in Radiation Belt, NASA Says

By Michael Mullins   |   Monday, 29 Jul 2013 11:15 AM

A particle accelerator has been discovered at the heart of the Van Allen radiation belt, say scientists using data collected by a NASA satellite.

Particle accelerators, which propel charged particles to high speeds and contain them in well-defined areas, can theoretically form miniature black holes by squeezing mass into a very small region of space, according to Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The Van Allen radiation belt is a region of super-energetic, charged particles that, comprised of plasma, surround the planet and are held in place by its magnetic field.

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The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science by a team of scientists led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and involving the University of Colorado Boulder, SpaceDaily.com reported.

The discovery was made by NASA's Van Allen Probes, which are designed to help the space program better understand the sun’s influence on the Earth and in particular space weather, which can prove hazardous to satellites.

The probes found that accelerated energy existed inside the belts themselves and that particles within the belts were pushed to go at "ever-faster speeds" by the particle accelerators, which in a press release NASA compares to a "well-timed push on a moving swing."

In the NASA press release, lead author of the report and a radiation belt scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, Geoff Reeves said, "Until the 1990s, we thought the Van Allen belts were pretty well-behaved and changed slowly.

"With more and more measurements, however, we realized how quickly and unpredictably the radiation belts change," Reeves added. "They are basically never in equilibrium, but in a constant state of change."

The Van Allen Probes took multiple simultaneous measurements with their advanced technology instruments, allowing scientists the ability to distinguish between potential causes responsible for the massive acceleration of particles.

The possible explanations for the accelerations were between radial acceleration and local acceleration.

"In radial acceleration, particles are transported perpendicular to the magnetic fields that surround Earth, from areas of low magnetic strength far from Earth to areas of high magnetic strength closer to Earth," explains NASA.

In comparison, "local acceleration theory proposes the particles gain energy from a local energy source, similar to the way warm ocean water can fuel a hurricane above it," the space agency explains.

According to data collected Oct. 9, Reeves' team discovered "an increase in energy that started right in the middle of the radiation belts and gradually spread both inward and outward."

The conclusion: a local particle accelerator was responsible for the acceleration of particles within the Van Allen radiation belts.

"These new results go a long way toward answering the questions of where and how particles are accelerated to high energy," Mona Kessel, Van Allen Probes program scientist in Washington, said in the NASA press release. "One mission goal has been substantially addressed."

According to NASA, the next challenge that will be tackled by the Van Allen Probes is to determine which waves are at work in order to "measure and distinguish between many types of electromagnetic waves."

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