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Killer Electrons From Outer Space

Accurate space-weather forecasts could come from knowing the cause of superfast electrons in the Van Allen belts

4 min read

31 August 2007—Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, say they have solved the mystery of satellite-zapping ”killer electrons” that are sometimes produced in Earth’s outer atmosphere. These highly energetic electrons—strong enough to damage electronics and human tissue—pose a danger to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts. For many years, the mechanism by which they are produced has remained little understood, in spite of physicists’ attempts at solving this puzzle.

Now, Yue Chen, Geoffrey Reeves, and Reiner Friedel say they have conclusively proved that killer electrons come about because very-low-frequency electromagnetic waves—themselves of somewhat mysterious origin—accelerate ordinary electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts to a point where they are traveling at velocities close to the speed of light. The three scientists published their results in the July 2007 issue of the journal Nature Physics .

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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