Van Allen Probes detect barrier around Earth
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.