Raise Shields! Star Trek-Like Barrier Protects Earth


Raise Shields! Star Trek-Like Barrier Protects Earth

“Raise shields!” may be a familiar defensive order given in the Star Trek Universe, but according to space scientists in our Universe, Planet Earth has its own built-in invisible shield that buffers “killer electrons” from orbital altitudes.

High energy particles, including electrons and protons, are known to speed around our planet at relativistic velocities — the high-energy electrons have been clocked traveling at a breakneck speed of 100,000 milesper second. These particles, which are held in two defined ‘doughnuts’ above the Earth’s atmosphere, are known to cause damage to satellites and also pose a risk to astronauts venturing beyond Earth orbit.

Discovered in 1958 by James Van Allen and his University of Iowa team, these famous Van Allen Belts were found to comprise of an inner belt and outer belt, extending 25,000 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 2013, Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder, used data from NASA’s Van Allen probes to discover a third “storage ring” between the classical inner and outer belts that appeared and disappeared with the waxing and waning of space weather. The twin Van Allen satellites continue to orbit the Earth, zooming in and out of the radiation belts, giving us an unprecedented view of this dynamic and fascinating region.

Now, in a new study published in the Nov. 27 issue of the journal Nature, Baker and his collaborators have discovered an oddity at the inner edge of these belts: There’s an invisible barrier blocking the high-energy electrons from making contact with our atmosphere.

“It’s almost like theses electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker in a UC press release. “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.”

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