Radiation (van Allen) belts
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The trapping regions of high-energy charged particles surrounding the Earth are called radiation (or van Allen) belts
(Van Allen et al., 1958; Van Allen and Frank, 1959).
The inner one, located between about X = 1.1 - 3.3 Re (Earth radii, geocentric)
in the equatorial plane, contains primarily protons with energies exceeding 10 MeV.
Flux maximum is at about X = 2 Re. (Distances given here are approximate,
since the location of particles is energy dependent.) This is a fairly stable
population but it is subject to occasional perturbations due to geomagnetic
storms, and it varies with 11-year
The source of protons in this region is the
decay of cosmic ray induced albedo from the atmosphere.
As a result of the offset between the Earth's geographical and magnetic axes, the inner belt reaches a
minimum altitude of about 250 km above the Atlantic Ocean off the Brazilian Coast. This South
Atlantic Anomaly occupies a region through which low-orbiting satellite frequently pass. Energetic
particles in this region can be a source of problems for the satellites and astronauts.
The outer belt contains mainly electrons with energies up to 10 MeV. It is produced by injection
and energization events following geomagnetic storms, which makes it much more dynamic than the
inner belt (it is also subject to day-night variations). It has an equatorial distance of about 3 - 9 Re, with
maximum for electrons above 1 MeV occurring at about X = 4 Re. 'Horns' of the outer belt dip sharply in
towards the polar caps.
Recently a new belt has been found within the inner belt. It contains heavy nuclei (mainly oxygen, but also
nitrogen and helium, and very little carbon) with energies below 50 MeV/nuc. The source of these
particles are the so called "anomalous cosmic rays" of interstellar origin.
The radiation belts are of importance primarily because of the harmfull effects of high energy
particle radition for man and electronics:
The investigation of the Earth's radiation environment was one of the main tasks of the CRRES satellite.
It has observed, for example, a rapid (1 min) formation of a new radiation belt due
to a SSC on 24 March, 1991 (Vampola and Korth, 1992).
- it degrades satellite components, particularly semiconductor and optical devices
- it induces background noise in detectors
- it induces errors in digital circuits
- it induces electrostatic charge-up in insulators
- it is also threat to the astronauts
- Vampola, A. K. and A. Korth, Electron drift echoes in the inner magnetosphere,
Geophys. Res. Lett., 19, 625-628, 1992.
- Van Allen, J. A., G. H. Ludwig, E. C. Ray, and C. E. McIlwain, Observations of
high intensity radiation by satellites 1958 Alpha and Gamma, Jet Propul., 28,
- Van Allen, J. A., and L. A. Frank, Radiation around the Earth to a radial
distance of 107,400 km, Nature, 183, 430, 1959.