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NASA's Van Allen Probes Find Radio Wave Shroud Enveloping Earth

19 May 2017

The finding comes as part of a more comprehensive paper on human-caused space weather phenomena.

The researchers found that these Cold War-era tests gave rise to temporary radiation belts around Earth and even created artificial auroras that could be seen over the equator, instead of the poles. Upon explosion, a first impact wave ousted an extending fireball of plasma, a hot gas of electrically charged particles. The test was conducted over Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.

Though these belts are invisible to the naked eye, the Teak nuclear bomb test near Hawaii was reported to have spawned auroras as far south as Western Samoa. Researchers recently discovered that the particles from nuclear tests were lofted into belts circling the Earth, causing geomagnetic storms and even damaging a few satellites. Our planet is naturally surrounded by Van Allen radiation belts - zones of highly-charged particles.

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A certain type of communications - very low frequency, or VLF, radio communications - were found to interact with particles in space, affecting how and where they move.

The existence of VLF bubble has also been verified by spacecrafts in the space, such as NASA's Van Allen Probes, which study electrons and ions in the near-Earth environment.

Humans have always been known to shape Earth's landscape and the space that surrounds it, but now scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) say that humans also can shape the near-space environment with radio communications as well. These belts are bodies of charged particles held at bay by Earth's magnetic field - think of them like a purgatory for space radiation.

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The sun sends out millions of high-energy particles, the solar wind, which races out across the solar system before encountering Earth and its magnetosphere, a protective magnetic field surrounding the planet.

This lower limit is said to be the "impenetrable barrier" - but, without the presence of the VLF transmissions, scientists suspect the boundary would sit much closer to earth. The artificially trapped charged particles remained in significant numbers for weeks, and in one case, years.

"The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun", says Dr Phil Erickson, an observatory director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-author of the research.

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Some even failed as a result, NASA explains. "If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these man-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment".

NASA's Van Allen Probes Find Radio Wave Shroud Enveloping Earth