Humanity has been reshaping the Earth’s landscape for thousands of years. Now scientists at NASA have discovered that we have also been shaping our near-space environments with radio signals. According to a study published in the journal Space Science Reviews, we have accidentally created a protective bubble surrounding the Earth in the last few decades.

NASA Earth Radio Signals
Image Credit: NASA / YouTube video (screenshot)

The radio signals are pushing back the impenetrable barrier

The bubble is the result of Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio signals that are used to communicate with deepwater submarines. NASA’s Van Allen Probes revealed that such communications extend far beyond our atmosphere. The US space agency had launched the twin Van Allen Probes in 2012 to study the radiation belts surrounding our planet. These high-altitude probes could withstand the bombardment of solar radiation.

NASA has released an explainer video visualizing how radio signals interact with particles above the Earth’s atmosphere, and influence their motion. Scientists were using the Van Allen Probes to study the impact of man-made “space weather” when they found the VLF bubbles. These VLF ripples are pushing further back what the University of Colorado scientist Dan Baker calls the “impenetrable barrier.”

The so-called impenetrable barrier extends to the inner edges of the Van Allen radiation belts, which are a collection of charged particles held in place by our planet’s magnetic field. Data showed that the Van Allen belts have moved further away from Earth since the 1960s, when the VLF use was limited.

These signals could make the Earth a little safer: NASA

The impenetrable barrier could save us from the bombardment of harmful particles by turbulent space weather such as solar storms. The US space agency is trying to figure out if the VLF signals could be used to remove the charged particles from the near-Earth environment. NASA is also figuring out whether the VLF could clean up charged particles in the upper atmosphere during major space weather events.

If there were no VLF radio signals, the Van Allen radiation belts would likely be inching closer to Earth. Understanding how the VLF transmission shapes our space environment would help us protect our satellites from natural space radiation, said NASA. The charged solar particles frequently interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, a phenomenon scientists call space weather. If enough of charged particles are bombarded on the magnetosphere, it could damage our satellites as well as electric power grids on the ground.

The US space agency said the plans were already underway to test whether the VLF transmissions in the upper atmosphere could protect the planet from intense space weather such as solar storms.