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Astrophysical Plasmas - The Radiation Belts


Torbjörn Sundberg
School of Physics and Astronomy
Queen Mary University of London

There are two large regions in our near-Earth space filled with trapped radiation – highly en-
ergetic electrons and ions with up to relativistic velocities, whose presence can pose a risk to
both satellites and spaceflight missions. These regions, know as the two radiation belts or the
Van Allen belts, were discovered already in the beginning of the space age by geiger counter
measurements from the Explorer 1 and 3 spacecraft, much to the surprise of the scientific com-
munity at the time. They extend from ∼ 1000 km up to 60000 km altitude above Earth’s
surface. In these regions, sensitive spacecraft components typically need substantial shielding
to prevent deterioration and data upsets, and any long term human presence would be subject
to lethal levels of radiation.

In this section, we will show how the fundamental principles of these trapped particles can
be understood in terms of the simple gyration and drift motions of particles in plasmas.

Particle motion in a dipolar field

To a first order approximation, Earth’s magnetic field can be treated as a dipole. This approx-
imation is valid up to approximately 6-8 Earth radii (RE ), after which external factors such as
the interaction with the solar wind becomes important. The magnetic field can be expressed
RE 3 q
B = B0 ( ) (1 + 3 sin2 (θ)), (1)
where B0 ∼ 30µT is the surface magnetic field at the equator, and θ is the latitude. It is
convenient to define the magnetic field lines in terms of their L-value: the distance from the
center of Earth at which the field line crosses the magnetic equatorial plane, with the distance
normalized to Earth’s radius (RE ). For example, a field line with an L-value of 4 crosses the
magnetic equatorial plane at 4 RE . This is illustrated in the figure below.

1 Earth radius, ≈ 6360 km

Neutral atmosphere = ≈ 0 − 85 km
Ionosphere = ≈ 85 − 1000 km (collisional plasma)
Magnetosphere = 1000+ km (collisionless plasma)

In a purely dipolar field, we expect three main processes to define the particle motion:
(1) Gyration
(2) Bounce motion (mirroring)
(3) Drift (gradient and curvature drifts)

Figure 1: Earth’s dipole field. Field lines with L-values of 2, 3 and 4 are shown.

(1) Gyration
The electron and ion motion is governed by the Lorenz force, F̄ = q(Ē + v̄ × B̄). In our first
approximation, we assume Ē = 0, which results in a force F̄ = q(v̄ × B̄) stricly perpendicular
to v⊥ . The gyro radius, rL and gyro frequency, Ωc can be expressed as:
rL = (2)

Ωc = (3)
The magnetic moment (µm ) associated with this gyro motion is an adiabatic invariant, meaning
that if changes occur slowly, the variable stays constant, no heat is transferred in the system,
and the process is reversible.
µm = (4)
In the terrestrial magnetic field, for exaple at L = 4, an 1 keV ion has a velocity of ∼ 300 km/s,
a gyro perios of ∼ 1s, and a gyro radius of ∼ 7 km. This indicates that the time scales are short
and the radius adequately confined in comparison to the scale size associated with the magnetic

(2) Bounce motion

On a given dipole field line, the field strength will be at it weakest at the equator, forming a
natural magnetic mirror (see Astrophysical Plasmas, section 3.5.3). The magnetic field profile
at a specific L-value can be expressed as:
B0 1 + 3 sin2 θ
B= 3 . (5)
L cos6 θ
We can follow how the pitch angle α of a particle (the angle between the velocity and the
magnetic field) changes as it moves away from the equatorial plane. With v⊥ = v sin α and µm
conserved this leads to:
m(v sin α)2 m(v sin αeq )2
µm = = , (6)
2B 2Beq

where Beq and αeq is the field strength and pitch angle where the field line crosses the magnetic
equator. Solving the equation for α = 90◦ gives the magnetic field magnitude at the mirror
Bm = , (7)
sin2 αeq
the smaller the inital pitch angle, the further away from the equatorial plane the particle can
travel, and, if the field magnitude at the mirror point exceeds that of the surface field (Bs ), the
particle will precipitate into the ionosphere, and be lost by collisions. This lets us define the
equatorial loss cone angle:
q B
sin αlc = ( ) (8)
We can expect that particles with pitch angles larger than αlc are trapped on the magnetic field
line, and that particle at lower pitch angles are lost. An example is shown in Figure 4. The
bounce times are expected to be on the order of a few seconds for electrons, and a few minutes
for ions.

(3) Drift motion

We can expect particles to be subject to two types of drifts: gradient drift and curvature drift:

mv⊥2 mv||2
vD = (B̄ × ∇B̄) + (B̄ × (B̄ · ∇)B̄), (9)
2qB 3 qB 4
where the gradient drift can be expressed as f (E⊥ , q) and the curvature drift as g(E|| , q), where
f and g are the function given above. This means that the gradient drift is primarily acting
on particles with high perpendicular energies, and curvature on particles with high parallel
energies. Both drifts are perpendicular to the force (magnetic field gradient and centrifugal
force), leading to an approximately circular drift around the dipole. If the drift period is short
in comparison to the time scale associated with magnetic disturbances, the particles can be
considered as trapped in the dipole magnetic field. Such disturbances may for example come
from changes in the solar wind composition, in particular the impact of coronal mass ejections.
The energy dependence in the drift equations means that higher-energy particles drift faster,
and they are therefore more stably trapped than lower-energy ones. The drift period is is
typically on the order of a few hours or more.

Figure 2: Profile of the magnetic field strength along a field line, as a function of latitude.

Figure 3: Estimated loss cone angle as a function of the field line L-value.

Figure 4: A typical pitch angle distribution measured by the Van Allen probes at L=3.0. From
Zhao et al. (J. Geophys. Res. 119, 9543–9557, 2014).

The Radiation Belts

The presence of closed drift paths and the drift stability of higher energy particles are two
fundamental ingredients in the formation of the radiation belts. The fact that high energy
particles are more stable in their drift paths leads to a preferential trapping in the higher
energy span. The acceleration processes required to energize particles to these energies can be
attributed to several different sources:
The conservation of µm discussed above implies that if a particle undergoes radial transport
from higher to lower L-shells, this inevitably leads to gains in v⊥ in order to conserve the
magnetic moment (this acceleration comes from the presence of non-zero electric field). This is
known as betatron acceleration, and it contributes to the higher particle energies measured at
lower L-values. Radial motion of a particle will also change the location of the mirror point,
shortening the bounce paths of the particle. This inward motion of the magnetic mirror will
also contribute with additional v|| , leading to an overall increase in particle energy. This process
is refered to as Fermi acceleration. For these reasons, particles that are injected into the inner
regions of the magnetosphere can be expected to naturally gain energy as they enter regions
of larger magnetic field, contributing to an initial energisation. Once the particles are trapped

Figure 5: Example drift paths of ions and electron. The oppsite drift direction of ions (westward)
and electrons (eastward) gives rise to the so-called ring current, a central feature in Earth’s

Figure 6: A schematic of the radition belts. Image credit: NASA.

in the inner regions of the magnetosphere, local waves can also provide additional acceleration,
pushing the electron population up to relativistic energies. These trapped relativistic electrons
(which easier reach higher energies than ions) are the main constituent of the radiation belts,
shown in Figure 6. Energetic ions are primarily found in the inner of the two belts. The primary
source of the radiation belt is attributed to injection of solar-originating electrons into the inner
magnetosphere, in particular during the during geomagnetic storms caused by the solar wind
interaction. A minor contribution may also come from the trapping of solar energetic particles.
The ion population in the inner belt can be attributed to both a slow inward diffusion of
solar protons, taking place over several years time, and the decay of neutrals energised and
ejected from the atmosphere by galactic cosmic rays, know as cosmic ray albedo neutron decay
(CRAND). These neutrals decay into energetic protons, electrons and anti-neutrinos. These
provide an efficient source for energised ions at low-altitudes, and CRAND ions are particularly
important high-energy tail (100+ MeV) of the radiation belt population in the inner belt.
The gap between the two belts can be explained by waves in this region causing pitch-angle
scattering, pushing particles from perpendicular to more parallel velocities. The dependence
on q also means that in both of these cases, electrons and ions drift in different directions, and
thereby generate a current, known as the ring current.