Scientists have recently discovered something seemingly out of a science fiction novel: an invisible shield in outer space that protects the planet against harmful radiation. The barrier is located 11,500 km (7,100 miles) above the surface of the Earth in the Van Allen radiation belts, and was discovered using NASA’s Van Allen probes. In an interview with Nature, Daniel Baker, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that when the potentially harmful electrons come towards Earth, “It’s almost like these electrons are running into a glass wall in space.” These electrons travel at near light speeds and are highly dangerous, capable of damaging space equipment and putting astronauts at risk. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”
Previously, scientists postulated that the highly charged electrons would slowly drift downward into the upper atmosphere and thereby be gradually wiped out by interactions with air molecules. However, this sharp boundary contradicts previous thought and brings a new perspective to the workings of the radiation belt.
With this knowledge, researchers have suggested that if satellites, or other orbiting space stations with humans on board were placed just inside the barrier, they would be expected to live longer lifetimes due to the fact that they are protected from these electrons.
However, scientists are ultimately still clueless on how the shield was formed and how it exactly works. This is the next step according to researchers. Unfortunately, The Fiscal Year 2015 NASA budgetary request calls for a reduction in the NASA budget by around $186 million USD, putting further discoveries in jeopardy. Earth science was cut by $56 million due to concerns from some in congress that climate change was ‘not real’. The Astrophysics budget was cut by $61 million, and the Planetary Science budget by $65 million. Perhaps the most devastating, the educational budget was slashed by $28 million. The educational programs at NASA are typically geared towards increasing public interest in space and teaching about the universe. Despite this, hopes continue at NASA and universities that future discoveries will continue to be made, with the courage and intelligence of the scientists in the field.