Researchers Use Tiny Satellites To Discover The Source Of Super-Fast Electrons Raining Down On Earth

You’re probably familiar with “Purple Rain,” the popular Prince song, but have you heard about “Electron Rain?”

In an article published in the Nature Communications journal, researchers discovered a new source of super-fast electrons raining down on Earth. This electron rain apparently also contributes to the beautiful northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis.

PHOTO: Unsplash/Lightscape

Although it’s pretty to look at and the aurora itself isn’t harmful to humans on Earth, they can actually cause damage to satellites, spacecrafts, and astronauts.

In the article that was published and researched by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists, they stated that, using the NASA-funded ELFIN mission, they were able to observe an unexpected, rapid ‘electron precipitation’ from low-Earth orbit. The ELFIN, or the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation, studies one of the processes that allows energetic electrons to escape the Van Allen Belts, a donut-shaped zone surrounding our planet, and fall to Earth.

PHOTO: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman

Visualization of the radiation belts with confined charged particles, showing Earth’s magnetic field lines and the trajectories of charged particles trapped by them

Researchers combined the ELFIN data they gathered with more distant observations from another NASA mission, the THEMIS, or the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms mission, which also orbits the Earth but is located beyond the Van Allen Belts. By combining the two sets of data, the researchers concluded that the sudden electron rain was caused by whistler waves, a type of low-frequency electromagnetic wave that ripples through Earth’s magnetosphere.

“ELFIN is the first satellite to measure these super-fast electrons,” said Xiaojia Zhang, lead author and a researcher in UCLA’s department of Earth, planetary and space sciences.

Previous studies have tackled electron rains. but this recent article shows that whistler waves are responsible for causing far more energetic electrons to “spill over” into Earth’s atmosphere than previously thought.

PHOTO: Youtube/The Neutronium Alchemist

Based on these findings, it’s important to study these added electron showers caused by the whistler waves, because the increase of activity may pose some serious threats to Earth’s atmospheric chemistry, our astronauts and spacecrafts, and damage low-orbiting satellites. As the researchers said, other scientists can update their models to better protect the people and machines that spend their time high above our planet.

The article’s co-author, Vassilis Angelopoulos said, “Although space is commonly thought to be separate from our upper atmosphere, the two are inextricably linked… Understanding how they’re linked can benefit satellites and astronauts passing through the region, which are increasingly important for commerce, telecommunications, and space tourism.”

Watch the video below for more info about the article.

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