Solar activity in November 2004
Take a bunch of fast-moving electrons, place them in orbit and then hit them with the shock waves from a solar storm. What do you get? Killer electrons. That’s the shocking recipe revealed by ESA’s Cluster mission.
Killer electrons are highly energetic particles trapped in Earth's outer radiation belt, which extends from 12 000 km to 64 000 km above the planet’s surface. During solar storms their number grows at least ten times and they can be dislodged, posing a threat to satellites. As the name suggests, killer electrons are energetic enough to penetrate satellite shielding and cause microscopic lightning strikes. If these electrical discharges take place in vital components, the satellite can be damaged or even rendered inoperable.
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.
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