Humans have long been changing our landscape here on Earth, for better and for worse, but now NASA has confirmed that we are shaping our near-space environment too.
The space agency’s Van Allen Probe has detected an electron bubble around our planet, formed as a direct result of our activity on the ground.
It seems certain type of communication waves called VLF, which are used to send messages to submarines deep in the ocean from stations on the ground, are now extending beyond our atmosphere too.
Phil Erickson, assistant director of the MIT Haystack Observatory, USA, said: “A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth.”
Spacecraft, which have been deployed to study electrons and ions floating around above our heads, noticed an interesting coincidence; that the outward extent of the VLF bubble corresponds almost exactly to the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belts.
As a result they concluded that it is inadvertently protecting us from natural high-energy particle radiation in space, which has to be good news, right?
Dan Baker, Director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, described this man-made creation as an “impenetrable barrier” and says that if there were no human VLF transmissions the radiation would be much closer to earth.
Indeed, looking at similar images taken in the 1960s the Van Allen radiation belts were able to reach far closer to our planet.
This knowledge is going to be useful in the future for helping the space agency protect their satellites from the effects of natural radiation in space.
With further study, VLF transmissions may serve as a way to remove excess radiation from the near-Earth environment.