NASA launched its Van Allen Probes, formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), on August 30, 2012 to study two giant belts of radiation (also known as the Van Allen radiation belts) that surround Earth. Recently, the two probes have shown scientists something that would require rewriting textbooks. Van Allen Probes have discovered a third radiation belt circling the Earth!
The Van Allen Probes consist of two identical spacecraft with a mission to map out the area of two giant belts of radiation circling the Earth, which were first discovered in 1958 by James Van Allen. The Van Allen Probes catalog a wide range of energies and particles, and track the zoo of magnetic waves that pulse through the area, sometimes kick particles up to such frenzied speeds that they escape the belts altogether. But they discovered something no one ever saw before – a third belt.
In 2012, the Van Allen Probes showed that a third belt can sometimes appear (above image). It only appears when charged particles from the Sun enter the system. When the third belt appears, an empty ‘slot’ of space appears with it, separating it from the other bands. The radiation is shown here in yellow, with green representing the spaces between the belts. Here’s a video for you.
Further research is needed to understand just how the band arises, and how it might impact space based systems. The scientists have detailed their findings in Nature, which was first published on February 28, 2013. For more details, you can visit NASA.