01/30/2012 01:00 pm ET

Electron Activity During Solar Storm Explained In New Research

Solar storms like the massive one that's currently hitting Earth don't just give us great aurora imagery. UCLA researchers have published a paper in Nature Physics that uses data from a 2011 storm to answer a long-disputed question about the dangerous high-energy particles that surround our planet.

The Van Allen radiation belt, where the observations were made, is a cloud of electrons, protons and other particles that surround our atmosphere in a donut-shaped pattern described by the Earth's magnetic field. The high-energy electrons, in particular, can wreak havoc on satellites and even "punch through astronauts' spacesuits and pose serious health risks," according to the lead author, UCLA researcher Drew Turner.

Since the 1960s, scientists have puzzled over why many of the electrons can disappear during a solar storm and then reappear within a few hours. Some guessed that the electrons were being directed into the earth's atmosphere, while others thought they were still there, just too dim to see.

The UCLA researchers coordinated data from 11 satellites during a 2011 solar storm and found that the solar wind was actually pushing the electrons safely into outer space, only to replace them later. Co-author Yuri Shprits, a research geophysicist, found the results counterintuitive, saying: "Oceans on Earth do not suddenly lose most of their water, yet radiation belts filled with electrons can be rapidly depopulated."

The 11-point measurement itself was quite an achievement, and Turner told that "It's impossible to get a sense of the entire process with one pinpoint of information."

The research promises to help engineers better protect satellites, since it gives them a more accurate way to model the particles in the Earth's magnetic field.

According to a UCLA statement, we might not have even learned about these issues without manmade spacecraft:

Earth's radiation belts were discovered in 1958 by Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite that traveled to space.

"What we are studying was the first discovery of the space age," Shprits said. "People realized that launches of spacecraft didn't only make the news, they could also make scientific discoveries that were completely unexpected."