Small Student Satellite Solves Scientific Dilemma

A small student satellite built and controlled by college attendees has just solved a nearly 60-year-old scientific mystery.

Student Satellite
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

The Student Satellite

A team of students at the University of Colorado Boulder just discovered that cosmic rays from explosions and supernovas are the source of damaging particles within Earth’s radiation belts. Using inexpensive equipment, a student satellite was able to provide cutting-edge information into a mystery that has been unsolved since 1958.

In a paper published this week in the journal Nature, the complicated process of cosmic ray albedo neutron decay (CRAND,) a phenomenon that causes cosmic rays entering our atmosphere to collide with neutral atoms, was confirmed to be the culprit behind a decades-old scientific dilemma.

These collisions create a “splash” of sorts, that produces charged particles that become trapped in radiation belts held in place by our planet’s magnetic field. Energized electrons are potentially damaging, and we currently don’t have much of an idea on how to address the issue.

The arrival of energized electrons towards our atmosphere has been fully understood until now, when the Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment created a shoe-box sized student satellite called the Relativistic, Electron and Proton Telescope integrated little experiment (REPTile.) The satellite, designed to measure energetic electrons and protons, shed new light on this 60-year mystery.

Back in 1958, James Van Allen discovered Earth’s radiation belts. When this knowledge first came to light, both American and Russian scientists believed that CRAND was the most reasonable explanation for why high energy protons trapped in the planet’s magnetic fields.

It turns out that the scientists back in the 50’s were correct, but we weren’t able to prove it until now.

Understanding Energetic Electrons

Xinlin Li, the lead author of the study associated with CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, commented on the significance of this find.

“We are reporting the first direct detection of these energetic electrons near the inner edge of Earth’s radiation belt…We have finally solved a six-decade-long mystery.”

The student satellite advanced our knowledge of energetic electrons, which has major implications for understanding and preventing damage to satellites and spacewalking astronauts.

Daniel Baker, the co-author of the paper, reminds readers that scientific findings don’t always require expensive, cutting-edge equipment.

“This is really a beautiful result and a big insight derived from a remarkably inexpensive student satellite, illustrating that good things can come in small packages…It’s a major discovery that has been there all along…A demonstration that Yogi Berra was correct when he remarked ‘You can observe a lot just by looking.’”

These findings show that cutting-edge scientific research isn’t necessarily reserved to the top Ph.D. experts in the field. A student satellite was able to provide evidence that we couldn’t confirm for years and reinforce the idea that science is for everyone. You don’t need a ton of money, equipment, and connections to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. With a willingness to think outside of the box and innovate in creative ways, nearly anything is possible.