Two giant swaths of radiation, known as the Van Allen Belts, surrounding Earth were discovered in 1958. In 2012, observations from the Van Allen Probes showed that a third belt can sometimes appear. The radiation is shown here in yellow, with green representing the spaces between the belts. (Credit: NASA/Van Allen Probes/Goddard Space Flight Center) Enlarge

Feb. 28, 2013 — NASA's Van Allen Probes mission has discovered a previously unknown third radiation belt around Earth, revealing the existence of unexpected structures and processes within these hazardous regions of space.

Previous observations of Earth's Van Allen belts have long documented two distinct regions of trapped radiation surrounding our planet. Particle detection instruments aboard the twin Van Allen Probes, launched Aug. 30, quickly revealed to scientists the existence of this new, transient, third radiation belt.

The belts, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, are critical regions for modern society, which is dependent on many space-based technologies. The Van Allen belts are affected by solar storms and space weather and can swell dramatically. When this occurs, they can pose dangers to communications and GPS satellites, as well as humans in space.

"The fantastic new capabilities and advances in technology in the Van Allen Probes have allowed scientists to see in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles and will provide insight on what causes them to change, and how these processes affect the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington.

This discovery shows the dynamic and variable nature of the radiation belts and improves our understanding of how they respond to solar activity. The findings, published February 28 in the journalScience, are the result of data gathered by the first dual-spacecraft mission to fly through our planet's radiation belts.

The new high-resolution observations by the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) instrument, part of the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma Suite (ECT) aboard the Van Allen Probes, revealed there can be three distinct, long-lasting belt structures with the emergence of a second empty slot region, or space, in between.

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