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Van Allen Belt is around the Earth.


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Van Allen Belt is a torus of energetic charged particles (plasma) around Earth, trapped by Earth's magnetic field. The Van Allen belts are closely related to the polar aurora where particles strike the upper atmosphere and fluoresce.

Van Allen belt.
Van Allen radiation belts.

The presence of a radiation belt had been theorized by Nicholas Christofilos prior to the space age and was confirmed by the Explorer I on January 31, 1958 and Explorer III missions, under Doctor James Van Allen. The trapped radiation was first mapped out by Sputnik 3, Explorer IV, Pioneer III and Luna 1. The release of fluorohydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere causes a selective absorption of alpha particles in that space. A conglomeration of such (invisible) clouds are called pseudo–Van Allen belts and are 1x10-9 lower than the real Van Allen belts. Recently, the NSF funded 2 competing proposals to study these belts and their effect on the amount of radiation that enters the inner atmosphere of the earth.

Energetic electrons form two distinct radiation belts, while protons form a single belt. Within these belts are particles capable of penetrating about 1 g/cm2 of shielding (e.g., 1 millimetre of lead).

The term Van Allen Belts refers specifically to the radiation belts surrounding Earth; however, similar radiation belts have been discovered around other planets. The Sun does not support long-term radiation belts. The Earth's atmosphere limits the belts' particles to regions above 200-1000 km, while the belts do not extend past 7 Earth radii RE. The belts are confined to an area which extends about 65º from the celestial equator.

Van Allen Outer belt.

Van Allen belt.
Laboratory simulation of the Van Allen belts' influence on the Solar Wind; these auroral-like Birkeland currents were created by the scientist Kristian Birkeland in his terrella, a magnetised anode globe in an evacuated chamber.

The large outer radiation belt extends from an altitude of about 5,000–65,000 km and has its greatest intensity between 14,500 and 19,000 km. The outer belt consists mainly of high energy (0.1–10 MeV) electrons trapped by the Earth's magnetosphere. The gyroradii for energetic protons would be large enough to bring them into contact with the Earth's atmosphere. The electrons here have a high flux and at the outer edge (close to the magnetopause), where geomagnetic field lines open into the geomagnetic "tail", fluxes of energetic electrons can drop to the low interplanetary levels within about 100 km (a decrease by a factor of 1000).

The particle population of the outer belt is varied, containing electrons and various ions. Most of the ions are in the form of energetic protons, but a certain percentage are alpha particles and O+ oxygen ions, similar to those in the ionosphere but much more energetic. This mixture of ions suggests that ring current particles probably come from more than one source.

The outer belt is larger than the inner belt, and its particle population fluctuates widely. Energetic (radiation) particle fluxes can increase and decrease dramatically as a consequence of geomagnetic storms, which are themselves triggered by magnetic field and plasma disturbances produced by the Sun. The increases are due to storm-related injections and acceleration of particles from the tail of the magnetosphere.

There is debate as to whether the outer belt was discovered by the US Explorer IV or the USSR Sputnik II/III.

Inner Van Allen belt.

The inner Van Allen Belt extends from roughly 1.1 to 3.3 Earth radii (4,400 to 13,200 miles), and contains high concentrations of energetic protons with energies exceeding 100 MeV, trapped by the strong (relative to the outer belts) magnetic fields in the region.

It is believed that protons of energies exceeding 50 MeV in the lower belts at lower altitudes are the result of the beta decay of Neutrons created by cosmic ray collisions with nuclei of the upper atmosphere. The source of lower energy protons is believed to be Proton diffusion due to changes in the magnetic field during geomagnetic storms.

Van Allen Belt impact on space travel.

Solar cells, integrated circuits, and sensors can be damaged by radiation. In 1962, the Van Allen belts were temporarily amplified by a high-altitude nuclear explosion (the Starfish Prime test) and several satellites ceased operation. Magnetic storms occasionally damage electronic components on spacecraft. Miniaturization and digitization of electronics and logic circuits have made satellites more vulnerable to radiation, as incoming ions may be as large as the circuit's charge. Electronics on satellites must be hardened against radiation to operate reliably. The Hubble Space Telescope, among other satellites, often has its sensors turned off when passing through regions of intense radiation.

An object satellite shielded by 3 mm of aluminum will receive about 2500 rem (25 Sv) per year.

Proponents of the Apollo Moon landing Hoax have argued that space travel to the Moon is impossible because the Van Allen radiation would kill or incapacitate an Astronaut who made the trip. Van Allen himself, now deceased (August 9, 2006), dismissed these ideas. In practice, Apollo astronauts who travelled to the Moon spent very little time in the belts and received a harmless dose. Nevertheless NASA deliberately timed Apollo launches, and used lunar transfer orbits that only skirted the edge of the belt over the equator to minimise the radiation. Astronauts who visited the Moon probably have a slightly higher risk of cancer during their lifetimes, but still remain unlikely to become ill because of it.

Causes of the Van Allen Belt.

It is generally understood that the inner and outer Van Allen belts are a result of different processes. The inner belt, consisting mainly of energetic protons, is the product of the decay of albedo Neutrons which are themselves the result of cosmic ray collisions in the upper atmosphere. The outer belt consists mainly of electrons. They are injected from the geomagnetic tail following geomagnetic storms, and are subsequently energised though wave-particle interactions. Particles are trapped in a the Earth's magnetic field because it is basically a magnetic mirror. Particles gyrate around field lines and also move along field lines. As particles encounter regions of stronger magnetic field where field lines converge, their "longitudinal" velocity is slowed and can be reversed, reflecting the particle. This causes the particle to bounce back and forth between the earth's poles, where the magnetic field increases.

A gap between the inner and outer Van Allen belts is caused by the very low frequency(VLF) waves which scatter particles in pitch angle which results in the loss of particles to the atmosphere. Solar outbursts can pump particles into the gap but they drain again in a matter of days. The radio waves were originally thought to be generated by turbulence in the radiation belts, but recent work by James Green of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center comparing maps of lightning activity collected by the Micro Lab 1 Spacecraft with data on radio waves in the radiation-belt gap from the IMAGE Spacecraft suggests that they're actually generated by lightning within Earth's atmosphere. The radio waves they generate strike the ionosphere at the right angle to pass through it only at high latitudes, where the lower ends of the gap approach the upper atmosphere. These results are still under scientific debate.

The Soviets once accused the U.S. of creating the inner belt as a result of nuclear testing in Nevada. The U.S. has, likewise, accused the USSR of creating the outer belt through nuclear testing. It is uncertain how particles from such testing could escape the atmosphere and reach the altitudes of the radiation belts. Likewise, it is unclear why, if this is the case, the belts have not weakened since atmospheric nuclear testing was banned by treaty. Thomas Gold has argued that the outer belt is left over from the aurora while Dr Alex Dessler has argued that the belt is a result of volcanic activity.

In another view, the belts could be considered a flow of electric current that is fed by the solar wind. With the protons being positive and the electrons being negative, the area between the belts is sometimes subjected to a current flow, which "drains" away. The belts are also thought to drive auroras, lightning and many other electrical effects.

Removal of the Van Allen Belt.

The belts are a hazard for artificial satellites and moderately dangerous for human beings and difficult and expensive to shield against.

There is a proposal by the late Robert L. Forward called HiVolt which may be a way to drain at least the inner belt to 1% of its natural level within a year. The proposal involves deploying highly electrically charged tethers in orbit. The idea is that the electrons would be deflected by the large electrostatic fields and intersect the atmosphere and harmlessly dissipate.

Some scientists, however, theorize that the Van Allen belts carry some additional protection against solar wind, which means that a weakening of the belts could harm electronics and organisms; and that they may influence the Earth's telluric current, which means that dissipating the belts could influence the behaviour of Earth's magnetic poles.

Van Allen radiation belts.
Van Allen radiation belts from Universal Pictures.
  • In a Halloween special of The Simpsons (The "Attack of the 50-foot Eyesores" section of "Treehouse of Horror VI"), a radio broadcast warns Homer that, "Scientists have noted disturbances in the Van Allen belt. Residents are encouraged to take appropriate action." These cause large advertising logos to come to life and cause havoc and destruction across Springfield. .
  • In the 1961 movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Van Allen radiation belt catches fire, threatening Earth. .
  • In the cartoon The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, an episode titled "The 'N' Men" (spoof of the X-Men) had Jimmy and his friends careening out of control through the Van Allen radiation belt, giving them all superpowers based on what each was doing at the moment they went through the radiation belt. .
  • Universal Pictures incorporated the Van Allen Belt into the globe motif of its 1964-1990 logo..
  • In the anime series The Vision of Escaflowne, the two lead protagonists from the mysterious world above the Earth, Gaea, are named Van and Allen. Whether or not this has some connection is only known by the director Kazuki Akane. .

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