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LOWELL ߝ The average person is probably unaware of it, but “killer” electrons are flying around space, capable of crippling orbiting satellites and posing a radiation risk to astronauts. Scientists have wondered for years how these electrons could reach such high energies and travel at near light speed.
But a team of physicists led by Qiugang Zong, a Jamaica Plain resident and assistant professor in UMass Lowell’s Center for Atmospheric Research (CAR), found the answer last year. The discovery ranked No. 37 on Discover magazine’s Top 100 Science Stories of 2007. UMass Lowell faculty are the only with public university affiliation in New England featured in the ranking. It is the cover story in the January 2008 edition of Discover, the nation’s leading popular-level science and technology magazine with a circulation of more than 700,000.
The physicists studied data from NASA and the European Space Agency’s Cluster satellites, including information collected during an October 2003 geomagnetic storm that sent a stream of high-speed charged particles from the sun toward Earth’s magnetosphere and damaged more than 15 satellites. The impact of such streams, also called solar winds, triggers instabilities along the boundary of the magnetosphere that in turn create Ultra Low Frequency electromagnetic waves, producing killer electrons and accelerating them to high speeds. Zong’s team was the first to measure the velocity reached by the electrons, which can be energized to more than 1 million electron volts and accelerated up to 94 percent of the speed of light, more than 280,000 kilometers per second.
The team’s findings ߝ co-authored by CAR co-director Paul Song and research assistant Xuzhi Zhou ߝ were published in June 2007 in Geophysical Research Letters. The information will be used to safeguard satellites, as well as astronauts aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station. The electrons pose a radiation threat to astronauts if they are caught in them during a spacewalk; exposure is the equivalent of five chest X-rays.
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