Another Belt Circles Earth

Science is about Discovering Things

One of the misconceptions that people uneducated in science often hold is that “science knows everything”. Yet, the very nature of science — which is an exploratory discipline — means that scientists are constantly finding new things and re-examining older knowledge in the light of new discoveries. That’s exactly what science is supposed to do.

A map of the  Van Allen Belts and the newly discovered third belt. Courtesy NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Colorado/ASI.
A map of the Van Allen Belts and the newly discovered third belt. Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Colorado/ASI.

Take the discovery of a third radiation belt around Earth, just announced today. For 50 years, we’ve known that Earth has two zones of trapped radiation surrounding our planet.  They’re called the Van Allen Belts, and without them, our telecommunications (for one thing) would be nearly (if not completely) impossible. They’re affected by solar storms, and the interactions between those belts and incoming swarms of energetic particles from the Sun can affect our GPS, communications, and other technologies.  I’ve written about this before, and a few years ago worked with MIT’s Haystack Observatory to produce a series of video podcasts called Space Weather FX that explains the complexities of the Sun-Earth connection and the role that our ionosphere and magnetosphere play in that connection.

Atmospheric researchers continually study those regions to characterize how the change over time, particularly during solar events. Of course, we don’t know everything about them yet, but increasingly more sensitive probes of that region (including studies done with ground-based atmospheric radars) tell scientists a lot about this constantly changing region.

The newly discovered third radiation belt was found by a set of spacecraft called the Van Allen Probes, and they will be critical in helping researchers understand the variability of all of Earth’s radiation belts, particularly as they respond to the variable activity of the Sun.

This finding shows us that there are still things to discovery, to study, to understand, and predict. Scientists knew quite a bit about the radiation belts before, but discoveries like this one are showing them that advances in technology are always going to uncover new and wondrous things! To learn more details about the Van Allen Probes and this discovery, check out today’s NASA press release about it.


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