63 Years after Explorer 1, New Discoveries about the Van Allen Belts Continue

By Mara Johnson-Groh
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched its first satellite: Explorer 1. Among its many achievements, Explorer 1 made the ground-breaking discovery of belts of charged particles encircling Earth.

Visualization of the two concentric donut-shaped Van Allen belts encircling Earth
Visualization of the Van Allen belts based on data from NASA’s SAMPEX mission. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

That discovery is still being studied today. 63 years on, scientists are still learning about these belts – now known as the Van Allen belts – and their effects on Earth and technology in space.

From 2012 to 2019, scientists used NASA’s Van Allen Probes to gather data from the dynamic region discovered by Explorer 1. While the mission is no longer operational, it left a treasure-trove of observations, which are continuing to reveal new things about the belts. In 2020, over 100 scientific papers were published in peer-reviewed international journals using Van Allen Probes data, often leading studies in conjunction with partner missions. Here are three surprising discoveries scientists have recently made about the Van Allen belts.

1) In addition to particles, space is filled with electromagnetic waves called plasma waves, which affect how charged particles in space move. Near Earth, one type of wave, called whistler chorus waves, bounces back and forth following magnetic field lines between Earth’s North and South poles. Observations from the Van Allen Probes and Arase missions recently showed that these waves can leave the equator and reach higher latitudes where they permanently knock particles out of the Van Allen belts – sending the particles out into space never to return.

2) In addition to removing charged particles from the belts, magnetic activity can also add in new particles. Van Allen Probes observations combined with data from a Los Alamos National Lab geosynchronous satellite and one of NASA’s THEMIS satellites showed how hot charged particles can be abruptly transported by magnetic activity across 400,000 miles, from distant regions under the influence of Earth’s magnetic field into the heart of the Van Allen belts.

3) Earth’s magnetic environment and the Van Allen belts are highly influenced by the Sun, particularly when it releases clouds of ionized gas called plasma, which can create hazardous space weather. Some stormy activity from the Sun can create an intense ring of current surrounding Earth. Understanding these currents is critical for predicting their adverse space weather effects on ground-based infrastructure. Using years of Van Allen Probes data, scientists can now accurately model the distribution of the ring current around Earth even during the most intense space weather storms.

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