Spaceflight Insider

Van Allen Probes detect barrier around Earth

Van Allen Probes / Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission

The identical Van Allen Probes follow similar orbits that take them through both the inner and outer radiation belts. The highly elliptical orbits range from a minimum altitude of approximately 373 miles (600 kilometers) to a maximum altitude of approximately 23,000 miles (37,000 kilometers). Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHU-APL

New results from NASA’s Van Allen Probes have revealed the impact humans have on the environment is not limited to physical and chemical effects on the Earth’s surface, but it also includes radio frequencies extending out into space. The probes have found that very low frequency, or VLF, radio communications interact with particles in space that can form an artificial barrier against high-energy particle radiation from space.

The Van Allen radiation belts have been a fixture of the near-Earth space environment since their discovery at the start of the Space Age, but VLF communications have been a much more recent phenomenon that has seen increased use since the 1960s. VLF communications are primarily utilized to communicate with submarines across vast distances in the ocean from powerful ground stations.

VLF communications were used on a limited basis in the 1960s, but they did not see widespread use until the latter portion of the Cold War. Despite these communications being directed in a downward direction, they can also extend above the surface creating a VLF bubble that is detectable by spacecraft.

“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can, in fact, affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth,” said Phil Erickson, assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory located in Westford, Massachusetts.

What the Van Allen Probes have found is that the bubble produced by VLF frequencies corresponds with the inner extent of the Van Allen radiation belts. A comparison of current data from the Van Allen belts with historical data from the 1960s shows that the Van Allen belt locations today are further from the Earth than they were 50 years ago.

The ability of VLF radio transmissions to impact the near-Earth environment is being studied in further detail. Scientists are investigating the possibility of using VLF transmissions in the upper atmosphere to help mitigate the effects of charged particles on spacecraft that are sensitive to major space weather events, such as coronal mass ejections from the Sun.

Video courtesy of NASA Goddard



Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.

Reader Comments

Peter Schuch

If the data collected is from 50 years ago, were the sensors and whatever instrumentation used accurate enough? I am asking because I find it difficult to believe that enough energy from VLF transmitters on earth can compete with the energy from the Sun.

Gabriel Thurman

Hello, I’m retired military (USMC). I can tell you technology is behind about 100 years from the time it’s released…on most things. Moon landing never happened. We are currently trapped in a Faraday Cage that surrounds the earth. Some things can pass though both ways, but not living tissue. We would be cooked like a microwave. As for Anderson and the rest of the Apollo Team… No one got radiation poison. But they should have. Why is Nasa so interested in this… It’s because it’s slowly dissipating. Which you would think good, because of travel, but it’s one of our main shields that protects the earth. Everthing breaks down in mathematical digression. So Nasa wants to know what’s next… Remember what holds us to this rock. It’s not just gravity… It’s also pressure of atmosphere, inner & outer. What have we done in the last 200 years to this earth. Which was fine before technology and mass production. This is alot to take in… But no matter how you swallow it, it’s the truth. Kinda like a balloon, once a hole is in it… It will pop eventually.

Are scientists certain that data from the instrumentation back 50 years ago was accurate enough to use to compare against more modern instrumentation?
I am asking because I find it difficult to see how even high power VLF transmitters on earth can compete with the energy from the sun and the energy of earth’s inner core that creates the magnetosphere. Thanks!

I don’t think the sun emitts radio waves.

Gabriel Thurman

Everything emits radio waves. Including humans. It’s all a matter of their frequency. Anything that has Electro magnetism or any Electro component established in them. Let’s say like a heart will have its own frequency. Any and all radiation produces radio waves. How do you think we made the microwave? So everything living and everything that has electrical current going through it has its own frequency. Have you ever noticed when you rub a balloon on one’s head to see their hair stand up, then put the balloon to your ear… Sounds a bit like a smell does to your ear. It’s because the frequency is bouncing off the inner side of the walls of the balloon.

So stop broadcasting dumb songs into space. “Across the Universe” is played daily maybe Lennon’s soul is causing the bubble. “Imagine” a universe with no bubble…..

Gabriel Thurman


Two things:

1.)Finally, a positive interaction between mankind and our environment is recognized.

2.) I Wonder if VLF radio could form the basis for a new spacecraft radiation shield technology? If this works, you can remit my Pulitzer care of

Jerry Volland

“A new spacecraft radiation shield”
A carbon plasmoid, rolling in quadrature – turning around two axes – might be inflated by the pressure of em waves. But the waves, in this case, wouldn’t be elf. Rather, the wavelengths would be much shorter. The carbon ion sphere would have a resonant wavelength equal to 3.65 times its diameter.

Note to self: Always finish reading the article before commenting…derp!

Bill Simpson

Very strange. Too bad it couldn’t be used to generate power or propel spacecraft.

Jerry Volland

I think it COULD be used to propel a space craft, if one side is pinched, similar to what happens to the MW’s inside an EMDrive’s cone.

Perhaps giant emitters, focused on a “push plate”,with different frequencies, would be cheaper to build in space than lasers. Which i think was a suggestion for driving a craft to mars. !!??

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