The discovery of the
two Van Allen Radiation Belts could be called the first
surprise of the space age. But scientists might not have
been surprised had they paid attention to the experiments of
plasma scientist Kristian Birkeland.
In a basement
lab of the physics department at the University of Iowa,
James Van Allen designed Explorer 1, a scientific satellite
for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958.
The satellite carried only a single instrument, a small
Geiger counter to record energetic particles. The instrument
was designed to measure cosmic rays, highly energetic ions
(positively charged particles) of unknown origin arriving
from distant space.
though the experiment detected many particles at low
altitudes, at the top of the orbit it counted no particles
at all, The explanation for this odd behavior was discovered
two months later by Explorer 3. This new satellite included
a tape to record data continuously. The data revealed that
the "absence" of cosmic ray counts from Explorer 1 actually
signified extremely high radiation. "So many energetic
particles hit the counter at the higher altitudes that its
mode of operation was overwhelmed and it fell silent,"
states a NASA account. "Not only was a radiation belt
present at all times, it was remarkably intense".
discovered what we now know as the innermost of the two Van
Allen Radiation Belts, a finding hailed as the first
important discovery of the space age. It could also be
called the first surprise of the space age, since
astronomers had not expected intense radiation around the
Had they paid
more attention to Birkeland's experiments it need not have
been a surprise. In fact his terrella experiments
demonstrated most of the phenomena found by spacecraft near
the Earth. But for scientists the stumbling block was that
the terrella required electrical power input to the Earth,
and standard astrophysics has no mechanism to support such a
half-century following Explorer 1, almost all the great
surprises of space age exploration of the solar system have
involved electromagnetic activity. We now know that the
Earth is surrounded by a complex structure of magnetic
fields and high-speed charged particles that include streams
of electric current around the Earth. This structure has
been named the "magnetosphere" under the assumption that it
forms the boundary between the Earth's and the Sun's
form similar protective sheaths, visible as their comas,
without having magnetic fields. In a plasma discharge most
objects naturally form a Langmuir plasma sheath that
prevents direct contact with the enveloping plasma.
Magnetospheres are merely a more complex form of Langmuir
sheath, with the magnetic field of the body trapped within
the sheath. If standard theory failed to anticipate these
discoveries, surely the primary reason lies in the failure
to recognize that planets are embedded in a solar electric
discharge and consequently enveloped by Langmuir sheaths.
reasons, the original contributions of Kristian Birkeland
should no longer be ignored.
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