Electrons Shoot Toward Space Not Earth

As the sun heads toward its 2013 maximum, the corresponding increase in space weather may temporarily strip the radiation belts around Earth of their charged electrons. But according to new study of data recorded by 11 independent spacecraft reveals that the deadly particles are blown into space rather than cast into our planet’s atmosphere, as some scientists have suggested. Streams of highly charged electrons zip through the Van Allen radiation belts circling Earth. When particles from the sun collide with the planet’s magnetic field, which shields Earth from the worst effects, the resulting geomagnetic storms can decrease the number of dangerous electrons. At the heart of the geomagnetic storm mystery are strange dips, known as dropouts, in the number of charged particles in the radiation belts. These lapses can happen multiple times per year, but when the sun is going through an active period, as it is now, the number can increase to several times per month. A team of scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, observed a geomagnetic storm in January 2011 with a plethora of instruments. They noticed that as intense solar activity pushes against the outer edge of Earth’s magnetic field on the daylight side, the lines can cross, allowing the damaging electrons to escape into space. Previous studies have found that the volume of electrons can spike after a solar event. The team used 11 different satellites, including NASA’s five Themis spacecraft and two weather satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, to study a small geomagnetic storm. The abundance of spacecraft allowed them to capture a complete picture of the interactions between Earth’s magnetic field and the particles streaming from the sun.