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NASA probes yield insights into Van Allen radiation belts

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In the wake of a recent electromagnetic storm, NASA’s Van Allen Probes identified unique chemical reactions inside Earth’s magnetic field. The findings offered new insights into how particles flow through near-Earth space.

The Van Allen radiation belts are a pair of giant rings populated by high energy charged particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. The Van Allen Probes, NASA’s twin spacecraft, are tasked with investigating particle behavior in the radiation belts.

Recently, the probes experienced a bit of serendipity, flying by just in the wake of an electromagnetic storm. The probes identified a sudden movement of particles from one side of Earth to the other.

The twin craft follow the same orbital path, one after the other. Their orbital positions are separated by just an hour. The pattern allows the pair to pick up sudden physical and chemical changes in Earth’s magnetosphere.

During the recent event, the second of the two probes measured an uptick in the amount of oxygen particles flowing along the side of Earth illuminated by the sun. Researchers used a computer model to interpret the probes’ observations.

NASA scientists determined the oxygen particles originated on the dark side of Earth. Reactions with Earth’s magnetic field energized the particles and sent atmospheric particles accelerating around the planet. Along the way, hydrogen particles were lost in collisions with atmospheric gases, leaving oxygen-rich plasma.

Researchers detailed their findings in the journal Geophysical Review Letters.

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