Earth’s Magnetic Field as Radiation Shield

magnetosphere - earth magnetic field
An artist’s rendering of the structure of a magnetosphere: 1) Bow shock. 2) Magnetosheath. 3) Magnetopause. 4) Magnetosphere. 5) Northern tail lobe. 6) Southern tail lobe. 7) Plasmasphere. Source: nasa.gov License: Public Domain

Earth’s magnetic field provides a vital radiation shield of cosmic radiation. In addition to a protective atmosphere, we are also lucky that Earth has a magnetic field. Magnetic field extends several tens of thousands of kilometers into space, protecting the Earth from the charged particles of the solar wind and cosmic rays that would otherwise strip away the upper atmosphere, including the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. It shields us from the full effects of the solar wind and GCR. Without this protection, Earth’s biosphere might not exist as it does today, or would be at least limited to the subsurface.  Earth’s magnetic field provides also a radiation shield for astronauts and the ISS itself, because it is in low Earth orbit.

Calculations of the loss of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of Mars, resulting from scavenging of ions by the solar wind, indicate that the dissipation of the magnetic field of Mars caused a near total loss of its atmosphere. Another fact is that anyone who had been on the Moon’s surface (i.e. outside the Earth’s magnetic field) during a particularly violent solar eruption in 2005 would have received a lethal dose.

Classification of Cosmic Radiation

Cosmic radiation can be divided into different types according to its origin. There are three main sources of such radiation:

  • Solar Cosmic Radiation. Solar cosmic radiation refers to sources of radiation in the form of high-energy particles (predominantly protons) emitted by the sun, primarily in solar particle events (SPEs).
  • Galactic Cosmic Radiation. Galactic cosmic radiation, GCR, refers to sources of radiation in the form of high-energy particles originating outside the solar system, but generally from within our Milky Way galaxy.
  • Radiation from Earth’s Radiation Belts (van Allen belts). Van Allen radiation belts are zones of high-energy particles (especially protons) trapped by earth’s magnetic field.

Galactic Cosmic Radiation

Cosmic Radiation - Natural Source of Radiation
Source: nasa.gov License: Public Domain

Galactic cosmic radiation, GCR, refers to sources of radiation in the form of high-energy particles originating outside the solar system. GCR are high-energy nuclei from which all of the surrounding electrons have been stripped away during their high-speed passage through the galaxy. The GCR incident on the upper atmosphere consist of a nucleonic component, which aggregate accounts for 98% of the total (2% are electrons). The nucleonic component then consist of a mixture of high-energy protons (~86%), alpha particles (~12%), and a trace of heavier nuclei (~1%). GCR are trapped by the galactic magnetic field, therefore they have probably been accelerated within the last few million years, and have traveled many times across the galaxy. Their acceleration mechanism is uncertain, but one of possible mechanisms is that the particle are accelerated by shock waves expanding from supernovas. The energy of these particles range between 108 eV and 1020 eV.  A very small fraction are stable particles of antimatter, such as positrons or antiprotons.

The precise nature of this remaining fraction is an area of active research. The GCR fluence rate varies with solar activity, being lower when solar activity is higher. At solar minimums, due to lower solar magnetic field shielding, the fluence is significantly higher than at solar maximum.

Solar Cosmic Radiation – Solar Particle Event

Solar cosmic radiation refers to sources of radiation in the form of high-energy particles (predominantly protons) emitted by the Sun, primarily in solar particle events (SPEs). The solar radiation incident on the upper atmosphere consist mostly of protons (99%), with energies generally below 100 MeV.  Solar particle events, for example, occur when protons emitted by the Sun become accelerated either close to the Sun during a flare or in interplanetary space by coronal mass ejection shocks. Note that, the Sun has an 11-year cycle, which culminates in a dramatic increase in the number and intensity of solar flares, especially during periods when there are numerous sunspots.

Solar radiation is a significant radiation hazard to spacecraft and astronauts, also produces significant dose rates at high altitudes, but only the most energetic radiation contribute to doses at ground level.  Note that, anyone who had been on the Moon’s surface during a particularly violent solar eruption in 2005 would have received a lethal dose.

Radiation from Earth’s Radiation Belts – Van Allen belts

van Allen radiation belts - satellitesVan Allen radiation belts are zones of high-energy particles (especially protons) trapped by earth’s magnetic field. Most of these high-energy particles originate from the solar wind, that were captured by and held around a planet by that earth’s magnetic field. The van Allen belt is formed like a torus above the equator. There are two van Allen radiation belts, an internal belt is centered at about 3,000 kilometers and an outer belt is centered at about 22,000 kilometers from the earth’s surface. It contains mainly energetic protons in the 10-100 MeV range.

Spacecraft travelling beyond low Earth orbit enter the zone of radiation of the Van Allen belts. Beyond the belts, they face additional hazards from cosmic rays and solar particle events. A region between the inner and outer Van Allen belts lies at two to four Earth radii and is sometimes referred to as the “safe zone”.

References:

Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  4. U.S.NRC, NUCLEAR REACTOR CONCEPTS
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See above:

Cosmic Radiation