NASA’s Van Allen Probes Reveal Behavior of Earth’s Ring Current

 diagram showing Earth's ring current in periods with (right) and without (left) geomagnetic storms During periods when there are no geomagnetic storms affecting the area around Earth (left image), high-energy protons (with energy of hundreds of thousands of electronvolts, or keV; shown here in orange) carry a substantial electrical current that encircles the planet, also known as the ring current. During periods when geomagnetic storms affect Earth (right), new low-energy protons (with energy of tens of thousands of electronvolts, or keV; shown here in magenta) enter the near-Earth region, enhancing the pre-existing ring current. Credits: Johns Hopkins APL


diagram showing Earth’s ring current in periods with (right) and without (left) geomagnetic storms
During periods when there are no geomagnetic storms affecting the area around Earth (left image), high-energy protons (with energy of hundreds of thousands of electronvolts, or keV; shown here in orange) carry a substantial electrical current that encircles the planet, also known as the ring current. During periods when geomagnetic storms affect Earth (right), new low-energy protons (with energy of tens of thousands of electronvolts, or keV; shown here in magenta) enter the near-Earth region, enhancing the pre-existing ring current.
Credits: Johns Hopkins APL

New findings based on a year’s worth of observations from NASA’s Van Allen Probes have revealed that the ring current – an electrical current carried by energetic ions that encircles our planet – behaves in a much different way than previously understood.

The ring current has long been thought to wax and wane over time, but the new observations show that this is true of only some of the particles, while other particles are present consistently. Using data gathered by the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment, or RBSPICE, on one of the Van Allen Probes, researchers have determined that the high-energy protons in the ring current change in a completely different way from the current’s low-energy protons. Such information can help adjust our understanding and models of the ring current – which is a key part of the space environment around Earth that can affect our satellites.

The findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters, here: