Radio: Cleaning Up Outer Space?

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Lots of things have been said about radio. I know, I say a lot of them and read many of the rest. This, however, is one of the most interesting things I have seen in awhile. According to Jeff Hect’s writing in the “Space” section of New Scientist, it would seem that radio waves are doing some house cleaning for us way up there in the stratosphere:

Radio transmitters on Earth cause charged particles to leak out of the inner Van Allen radiation belt in space, new observations confirm.

Future satellite transmitters may take advantage of the effect, which had been predicted theoretically, to help clear the belt of charged particles from intense solar outbursts or nuclear explosions in space that could threaten satellites.

The Earth’s geomagnetic field traps charged particles in two concentric belts that gird the planet. Particles can escape the outer belt in about a week, but the inner belt can hold onto particles for about a year.

That could potentially lead to a dangerous buildup of particles after solar storms or a nuclear blast in space. High levels of charged particles could damage global positioning and other types of satellites that orbit in the Van Allen zone.

This effect has been theorized about for quite sometime, but it was only now that simultaneous observations from both space and the ground were able to move it out of the realm of speculation.

At night, when more VLF signals can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, a French satellite called DEMETER measured more electrons near the inner belt when a powerful transmitter in Australia was turned on than when it was off.

Concerned about possible damage to vital military satellites, the US Air Force has devised a plan for “radiation belt remediation” by sweeping excess charged particles from the radiation belts with 20-kilohertz radio waves from a satellite transmitter.

From the days of Sputnik to the era of Phoenix, we have used radio both to communicate with our spacefaring craft and to boost our terrestrial transmissions. Both of these uses have the potential to be affected by the buildup of charged particles in the Van Allen Belt. The idea that one could “inoculate” the belt periodically against these particles is an interesting one.

Unfortunately VLF radio transmitters have been in use, and by these terms affecting the belts, since the 1920s. The belts themselves were only just discovered in 1958. This leaves us without a model of what the pre-radio belt’s configuration and composition was.

Image courtesy of NASA

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One Response to “Radio: Cleaning Up Outer Space?”

  1. Celestial Objects » Radio: Cleaning Up Outer Space? Says:

    […] Original post by George Williams […]

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