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Lancaster involved in £400,000 project to understand “killer electrons”

02/01/2011 00:00:00


Dr Denton during a previous research visit to the Arctic to deploy particle monitoring equipment
Dr Denton during a previous research visit to the Arctic to deploy particle monitoring equipment

Lancaster University is working with the British Antarctic Survey on a £400,000 project to understand how particles from space affect the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists aim to find out more about so-called “killer electrons” in the Van Allen radiation belt around Earth, which can damage orbiting satellites and spacecraft.

The Van Allen radiation belt periodically discharges energetic particles such as electrons and ions into the high atmosphere above Earth, especially at the polar regions. This can change the chemistry of the atmosphere, with possible implications for climate change.

Dr Mick Denton is from the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science (SPEARS) group at the Department of Physics.

He said: “It’s still a mystery how much the radiation belt is affecting Earth and how much of an impact it has. We have no clear understanding of what causes the radiation belt to come and go. This is also a serious problem for satellites in orbit which can be damaged by such energetic particles.”

The five year project will see two radio receivers installed in Antarctica as part of a global network of receivers set up by the AARDDVARK consortium of international universities from Australia to South Africa and Hungary.

Dr Denton said: “The receivers will pick up signals broadcast from Very Low Frequency transmitters all over the world which transmit over long distances. We’ll be picking up electromagnetic changes to the radio signals caused by the particles entering the atmosphere and from that, we can analyse the data to find out more about the nature of the particles.”

The receivers are sited in the Antarctic because the effect of energetic particles on radio waves is enhanced over thick ice sheets.

The lead investigator, Dr Mark Clilverd from the British Antarctic Survey, said: “We know where these electrons hit the atmosphere, but don't know how often they occur, how long they last, or how fast they are travelling. We need to find these things out in order to determine the impact of space particles on the atmosphere. The region of the Antarctic that we are going to put the instruments is the best place on Earth to make our measurements, but it is also one of the toughest.”

The AARDDVARK project complements a NASA mission due to be launched in 2012 called the Radiation Belt Storm Probes which aims to investigate energetic particles using satellites in space.