Understanding Cosmic Particle Accelerators Near Earth
The Universe is full of natural particle accelerators. Above our planet’s shielding atmosphere, cosmic particle accelerators reach energies that vastly exceed those that can be achieved on Earth.
The closest cosmic particle accelerators are the Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts. Particles in these doughnut-shaped belts accelerate to high energies and are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. They normally bounce back and forth stably between a region around the North and South Magnetic Poles. However, during magnetic storms, these particles can greatly increase in energy or can be released into deep space or even into our atmosphere.
Dr. Christopher Cully, Canada Research Chair in Space Physics, is using an international array of satellites and ground-based instruments to understand what causes the acceleration and transport of particles in near-Earth space.
By studying our closest natural cosmic particle accelerator, Cully’s research will help clarify the pathways of energy flow in the universe. Cully is also applying cutting-edge developments in electronics and information technology to develop new and better instruments for monitoring our space environment. Of more immediate importance, radiation belts around the Earth pose a continual hazard to satellites and other spacecraft that must fly through them. The high-energy particles accelerated by magnetic storms can damage and destroy sensitive electronics on satellites.
Cully’s research will help to understand and predict magnetic storms and increase safety for spacecraft and humans in space.