Scientists are trying to understand the precise details of what creates giant explosions in the sun's atmosphere, such as this solar eruption from Oct. 14, 2012, as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Amari

Oct 8, 2013: When ‘killer electrons’ shook Earth in flat 60 seconds

The day was October 8 in 2013 when an explosion on the Sun sent out a rapid supersonic blast wave into space that crossed past Mercury and Venus and hit the Earth.

The resultant effect lasted for 60 seconds on Earth’s radiation belts, accelerating certainparticles to ultra-high energies, observed a team of scientists.

In their first of its kind study, the reserchers observed in detail the effects of a solar shockwave on the Earth’s radiation belts in its entire cycle. It struck a massive blow to the Earth’s magnetic field, setting off a magnetised sound pulse around the planet, they said.


John Foster (MIT)

“These are very lightweight particles, ‘killer electrons’ – electrons that can go right through a satellite,” said John Foster, associate director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Haystack Observatory.

These particles are accelerated with their number going up by a factor of 10 in just one minute, the scientists revealed in their study.

“We were able to see this entire process taking place and it is exciting. We see something that, in terms of the radiation belt, is really quick,” said Foster.

Though solar shockwaves can impact Earth’s radiation belts a couple of times each month, “The event in 2013 was a relatively minor one,” Foster added.

The Sun’s supersonic blast wave sent a shockwave that tore past Mercury and Venus, blitzing by the moon before streaming towards Earth.

NASA’s Van Allen Probes, twin spacecraft orbiting within the radiation belts deep inside Earth’s magnetic field, captured the effects of the solar shockwave just before and after it struck.

Scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the University of Colorado and elsewhere analysed the probes’ data and observed a sudden and dramatic effect in the shockwave’s aftermath.

The findings were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.



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