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Scientists Discover an Invisible Shield Protecting Earth  

by Laura Parker

December 2, 2014

Scientists led by a team at the University of Colorado in Boulder have discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth, which they say protects the planet from “killer electrons”—ominous-sounding particles that whip around space close to the speed of light, fry satellite equipment and even harm astronauts outside space stations.

The shield was discovered in the Van Allen radiation belts, a couple of doughnut-shaped rings held in place above Earth by its magnetic field. First discovered in 1958 by Professor James Van Allen at the University of Iowa, the belts are filled with electrons and protons that respond to incoming “energy disturbances” from the sun. Last year, Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, discovered a third ring nestled between the two belts.

Daniel Baker

According to Baker, who studied under Van Allen and published a paper on his findings in the latest issue of Nature, this third ring seems to “come and go” according to the intensity of activity around the area. Now, he has also discovered a boundary related to the third ring that appears to block fast electrons from moving closer to Earth.

"It's almost like these electrons are running into a glass wall in space," Baker said of the study. "Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It's an extremely puzzling phenomenon."

Illustration by Andy Kale, University of Alberta.

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Scientists Discover an Invisible Shield Protecting Earth