Although we don’t realize the electronic flows above our heads (and most times actually don’t care about) the whole humankind is only able to exist because we are protected by an incredible shield found around seven thousands miles from the Earth surface.
As the first significant discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts were detected in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen and his team at the University of Iowa and were found to be composed of an inner and outer belt extending up to 25,000 miles above Earth’s surface. In 2013, Baker — who received his doctorate under Van Allen — led a team that used the twin Van Allen Probes launched by NASA in 2012 to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts that seems to come and go with the intensity of space weather.
The latest mystery revolves around an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer belt at roughly 7,200 miles in altitude that appears to block the ultrafast electrons from breeching the shield and moving deeper towards Earth’s atmosphere.
While Baker said plasmaspheric hiss may play a role in the puzzling space barrier, he believes there is more to the story. “I think the key here is to keep observing the region in exquisite detail, which we can do because of the powerful instruments on the Van Allen probes. If the sun really blasts Earth’s magnetosphere with a coronal mass ejection (CME), I suspect it will breach the shield for a period of time,” said Baker, also a faculty member in the astrophysical and planetary sciences department.
“It’s like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, ‘Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,'” said John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory and a study co-author.