NASA has discovered that there was a 3rd radiation belt hanging around Earth. The discovery was made by two Van Allen space probes that were made specifically to analyze Earth’s radiation belts. The Van Allen probes were named after James Van Allen, who was the the first to discover the radiation belts 55 years ago in 1958. The probes are designed identically and provide scientists with a deeper insight on how radiation belts are formed.
The 3rd belt was discovered with a stroke of luck. Scientists on the Van Allen mission asked that the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) be turned on 3 days in advance. Right before it was turned on, an electron acceleration event was taking place causing the radiation belts around Earth to swell. New particles were trapped in the belt, and to the surprise of the scientists, the particles started their own formation and created a 3rd belt.
John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for Science in Washington, stated, “The fantastic new capabilities and advances in technology in the Van Allen Probes have allowed scientists to see in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles and will provide insight on what causes them to change, and how these processes affect the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere”
The discovery of the third belt allowed scientists to study the effect of space weather on Earth. The scientists were able to study the 3rd belt for four weeks before an interplanetary shock wave from the sun destroyed it. The two Van Allen probes are helping the scientists discover more mysteries of Earth’s radiation belt in excruciating detail. They want to figure out whether or not the temporary 3rd ring is a common occurrence or if its rare. The Van Allen probes are on a new mission now to “explore aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.”