Magazine article Science News

Trashing Earth's Radiation Belts

Magazine article Science News

Trashing Earth's Radiation Belts

Article excerpt

Trashing Earth's radiation belts

The clutter of huma debris circling the Earth -- inoperative satellites, spent rocket casings and many tinier bits -- has raised concern about its possible hazard to other orbiting objects, such as space stations and even the shuttle. But that is not its only effect. Andrei Konradi at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston notes that the growing amount of space trash may noticeably reduce the number of charged particles in Earth's Van Allen radiation belts.

What Konradi calls the "shell" of debris absorbs high-energy protons that spiral in toward the debris along the lines of Earth's magnetic field, so that "in the next decades we can expect a measurable decrease in [the protons'] fluxes," thus reducing the flow of charged particles in the radiation belts.

In 1986, the "debris environment" between Earth's surface and an altitude of about 1,500 miles had a total cross-sectional area roughly equal to three football fields, Konradi reports in the Dec. …

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