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Hacking the Van Allen Belts

Could we save satellites and astronauts by wiping out the Van Allen belts?

4 min read
Hacking the Van Allen Belts
Electric Light Orchestrated? Alas, even if we took control of the Van Allen belts, it probably wouldn't result in more auroras.
Photo: Sara Winter/Getty Images

The radiation belts around Earth are loaded with dangerous protons and electrons that can damage spacecraft. Now researchers are launching experiments to see if they can clear away the high-energy particles that pose the hazard by blasting them with radio waves.

When humans began exploring space, the first major find was the Van Allen radiation belts, doughnut-shaped zones of magnetically trapped, highly energetic charged particles. The Van Allen belts consist mainly of two rings: The inner belt starts roughly 1000 kilometers above Earth’s surface and extends up to 9600 km, while the outer belt stretches from about 13 500 to 58 000 km above Earth. The location and shapes of the belts can vary, and they can even merge completely.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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