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Earth Space Science

Attack of the Killer Electrons 98

Posted by Soulskill
from the blame-the-esa-for-the-title dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "At the peak of a magnetic storm, the number of highly energetic 'killer electrons' strong enough to damage electronics and human tissue can increase by a factor of more than ten times, posing a danger to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts. Killer electrons can penetrate satellite shielding, so if electrical discharges take place in vital components, a satellite can be damaged or even rendered inoperable. For many years, the mechanism by which killer electrons are produced has remained poorly understood, in spite of physicists' attempts at solving this puzzle. Now the ESA reports that data shows the increase in the creation of a substantial number of killer electrons is due to a two-step process. First, the initial acceleration is due to the strong shock-related magnetic field compression. Immediately after the impact of the interplanetary shock wave, Earth's magnetic field lines began wobbling at ultra low frequencies. In turn, these ULF waves effectively accelerate the seed electrons (provided by the first step) to become killer electrons. 'These new findings help us to improve the models predicting the radiation environment in which satellites and astronauts operate. With solar activity now ramping up, we expect more of these shocks to impact our magnetosphere over the months and years to come,' says Philippe Escoubet, ESA's Cluster mission manager."
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Attack of the Killer Electrons

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  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:42PM (#31487398) Homepage Journal

    Killer electrons. Geez, Just because ESA has to write to the level of a broad, uneducated audience, doesn't mean that Slashdot is that audience. Please write to the level of your audience.

    How about X-Rays, Roentgen Rays, Ionizing radiation, Accelerated electrons, etc.

    • by pclminion (145572) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:45PM (#31487448)
      Uh, "killer electrons" is the accepted scientific name for this phenomenon. Physicists sometimes use weird names for things. Deal with it.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Pojut (1027544)

        You mean like Strange matter [wikipedia.org]? I honestly think they just aren't creative sometimes and just say "It's weird stuff, we can't think of a name for it, we're wasting time...let's just call it strange matter."

        • by pclminion (145572) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:50PM (#31487536)

          You mean like Strange matter? I honestly think they just aren't creative sometimes and just say "It's weird stuff, we can't think of a name for it, we're wasting time...let's just call it strange matter."

          The term "strange matter" has a lot more history behind it than you make it sound. The origin of the term "strange" was in connection with mesons observed in cosmic ray data which, given our then-current understanding of QCD, had unusually long ("strange") lifetimes. Eventually it was discovered that the long-lifetime mesons contained quarks which had not been seen before. The quark was thus named the "strange" quark because it was one of the keys to understanding the strange mesons. Now, imagine a non-negligible assembly of matter consisting of mesons and baryons with strange quarks. This matter is called strange matter.

          Yes, the term "strange" was originally used because it was a "WTF?" kind of moment, but that happened a long time ago. Strange matter is perfectly well-understood.

          • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:14PM (#31487868) Homepage

            Okay that all sounds pretty reasonable, but explain the What In The Name of Jeebus Is That Nebula, or the I Couldn't Even Begin To Explain What's Going On Here Quasar.

            • I think the people who named those worked at the Mt. God I'm So Drunk Observatory.

            • by dissy (172727)

              Okay that all sounds pretty reasonable, but explain the What In The Name of Jeebus Is That Nebula, or the I Couldn't Even Begin To Explain What's Going On Here Quasar.

              Alcohol? Possibly some form of hallucinogenic?

          • I believe that OP^2 is saying that it is pure gutter science for the masses and serves no scientific purpose. I am quite aware that ESD or CMEs or any number of other effects are deleterious to the function of electronic systems. It isn't living and so cannot be "killed". We had a joke in the labs years ago for noobs, that we were getting too many heavy electrons from the power company and that is why the design didn't work. It is true in relativistic terms that moving electrons would a more likely the pro
            • by khallow (566160)

              I believe that OP^2 is saying that it is pure gutter science for the masses and serves no scientific purpose.

              Right. And their error was corrected.

              If a quark does not absorb or reflect light, why would you use the term "color" as a label.

              Because color is an apt analogy for the conserved charges (of which there happen to be three independent bases) of the strong force theory.

              I feel that quarks should be categorized by degree of smell, boolean, and repugnance, instead of charm, polarity, and color. For a science that deals with some of the most interesting and complex phenomenon, it seems strange they need to gluon vajazzles.

              That's why scientists name these things rather than you.

              • Homeless electrons get excited and rape virgin satellites. Technically, electrons which are unbound to an atom are homeless by analogy. Satellites have never had sex and thus are virgins.
                There is nothing in a name except what communicates. There is still no murder victim and the perp is a [] beta- particle.
                A quark by any other name would still smell as sweet.
                It really makes no difference what they are called, and names that overload unrelated concepts in the same field seems like a "strange" leap to me.
                • by Chris Burke (6130)

                  *fap fap fap* Uhhh, witty!

                • by pclminion (145572)

                  It really makes no difference what they are called, and names that overload unrelated concepts in the same field seems like a "strange" leap to me. It has to do with charge and so it is called color. Perfectly logical.

                  It IS perfectly logical, if you bother to actually understand the way the three color charges interact. If you mix red, green, and blue, you get white, which is the absence of color. If you mix red and anti-red, you get nothing, which is again, the absence of color. Look at the diagrams on W [wikipedia.org]

                  • I enjoy discussing the subject and perhaps what you see as ignorance is merely a different perspective. I deal in all areas of science and names is a particularly irritating thing for me personally. If I were programming, I would not call the USB interface mouseDriver, for example. Lambda is also used as Lambda calculus. I am required to use German, French and Latin to relate things. Entegegen and Zusamen in biochemistry. It isn't necessary for me to have a car analogy, as I understand the underpinning of t
                    • by pclminion (145572)

                      ot so oddly, we have this same conflict. I rearrange things in hopes of finding new solutions and he finds that disturbing. It seems to help my creative process to tear down things once in awhile and put them back together. I suppose it is all relative or relativistic and that, I think, in this context, is a triple entendre.

                      There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to find alternate, maybe even superior, ways of looking at something. My point is that the choice of the color analogy was not arbitrary. T

      • The problem is that mundane electrons are quite lethal in a broad set of conditions. I think "highly-energetic electrons" or "superfast electrons" makes a heck of a lot more sense.
        • by mea37 (1201159)

          No, you misunderstand; lethal has nothing to do with it.

          The name originated when two NASA scientists were studying data from a crippled satelite, and one said to the other "Duuuuude, those are some killer electrons!"

          Unless I'm lying to you.

    • by imsabbel (611519)

      Well, first one to throw a stone...

      How many of your alternatives have nothing to do with that phenomenon?

      How do the two that might be used to descripe the phenomenon make a distinction towards all the normal electrons flying around in the interplanetary space (they move, so they are accelerated, and nearly anything out there is fast enough to be ionizing...)?

      • How many of your alternatives have nothing to do with that phenomenon?

        Turn that around. How many electrons that don't have to do with that phenomenon are killer electrons? Quite a few. They come out of your electrical outlet. Just touch them the wrong way, and you won't be posting on Slashdot again.

        • How many electrons that don't have to do with that phenomenon are killer electrons? Quite a few. They come out of your electrical outlet. Just touch them the wrong way

          There's a right way? Would you care to demonstrate? PLease. pretty please.

    • Killers, shock, penetrations, human tissue...I guess they tried to attract moviegoers.
    • by Yvan256 (722131)
      Don't talk to me about X-Rays. After 30 years and 500 comic strips I'm still waiting for my X-ray glasses!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by blueg3 (192743)

      How about X-Rays, Roentgen Rays, Ionizing radiation, Accelerated electrons, etc.

      How about them? X-Rays and Roentgen Rays refer to photons, not electrons (except, in English, Roentgen Rays is generally not used). Ionizing radiation is incredibly vague; it's more often used to refer to photons than electrons. Accelerated electrons at least gets the particle right, but is also far too general. A paper on "How are accelerated electrons produced?" could simply answer, "They're accelerated."

      Like it or not, "killer electrons" appears to be the preferred term for electrons produced in this man

      • by idontgno (624372) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:41PM (#31488298) Journal

        It's been a few (~ 3) years since I last worked with space weather types, but the technical term they tended to use for the phenomenon was "relativistic electron". That phrase gets the idea across that the electrons are bad because they're haulin' ass at significant fractions of lightspeed.

        Natural relativistic electron flux measurements and predictions are some of the most important forecast products of military space weather, just because astronauts and other "high fliers" could suffer health effects (like, die) from it. And also because the military has lots of sensitive orbital assets that can be ordered to shut down and harden themselves if their ground controllers can get enough advance warning.

        All of that said, I think that "killer electrons" is a good PR name for the phenomenon. Not even the hardest science is immune to the siren call of public relations, especially if funding and awards can be on the line.

        Sad.

        • by blueg3 (192743)

          Killer electrons may be a subset of relativistic electrons (appearing in particular situations, as opposed to relativistic electrons encountered in other situations), but relativistic is a very good adjective, yes. :-)

      • Killer protons (Score:3, Informative)

        Protons (cosmic rays) arrive in random directions from gamma ray bursts billions of light years away in every direction. The energies are usually in the MeV - GeV range, the flux is low, and regular shielding is enough to stop most of them. (Electrons like that arrive too, but they're like the BB pellets of cosmic rays.) Astronauts need to worry a little bit about solar wind and cosmic rays giving them cancer, but they need to worry more about orbiting paint chips traveling at 20000 mph. A paint chip once h
        • The paint chip that hit STS-59 made a ding 1/2 inch in diameter but did not puncture the window. It is not the only such windshield damage, just the largest.
        • Occasionally a relativistic proton arrives with a respectable human-scale energy, measurable in Joules. Cancer is the least of your worries. It could blow your head clean off

          Are you entirely sure about that? While I will agree that it's a huge amount of energy for a single particle, that particle is tiny. It's going to leave a very very small hole going in and out. Even if the entire energy of that particle was transferred into your head, would it really make it explode?

          It takes 4.2 joule to heat one gram o

          • Bravely quoting the current Wikipedia edit:

            The first observation of a cosmic ray with an energy exceeding 10^20 electronvolts was made by John Linsley at the Volcanic Ranch experiment in New Mexico in 1962. Cosmic rays with even higher energies have since been observed. Among them was the Oh-My-God particle (a play on the nickname "God particle" for the Higgs boson) observed on the evening of 15 October 1991 over Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah. Its observation was a shock to astrophysicists, who estimated its energy to be approximately 3 × 10^20 electronvolts (50 joules)—in other words, a subatomic particle with macroscopic kinetic energy equal to that of a baseball (142 g or 5 ounces) traveling at 96 km/h (60 mph). It was most probably a proton with a speed very close to the speed of light. To a static observer, such a proton, traveling at 1 (5×10^24) times c, would travel only 47 nanometers (5×10^24 light-years) less than a light-year in one year. Since the first observation, by the University of Utah's Fly's Eye Cosmic Ray Detector, at least fifteen similar events have been recorded, confirming the phenomenon. These very high energy cosmic rays are very rare; the energy of most cosmic rays is between 10^7 eV and 10^10 eV.

            Physicists always talk about these particles, with "enough energy as a fastball", "enough to whack your head off" etc. These are colloquialisms.

            The proton probably does just go through your head- after all, it mostly sees nothing. But it can reach places in your head which are off-limits to bullets. Even though it mostly sails through, sometimes it has a collision with something inside your head, interacting via one or the other of these fields. It could cause a

            • Even then, a 96 km/h baseball won't take your head off. It'll hurt like hell, but that's about it.

              And even the (likely lethal) "shower of muons, pions, kaons, W+, W-, Z, e+, e-, and gamma rays" won't somehow have a combined energy above the level of energy of the original particle. Antoli Burgoski's [wikipedia.org] head didn't explode. The proton beam cut right through his skull - and while that was possibly a "weaker" impact that that of an OMG-particle, that really just means the OMG-particle would do the same.

              There cert

              • And even the (likely lethal) "shower of muons, pions, kaons, W+, W-, Z, e+, e-, and gamma rays" won't somehow have a combined energy above the level of energy of the original particle.

                I didn't think I implied they would. I was talking about the percentage that might or not be relased inside the head.

      • Right. Sorry. It's not an X-ray until it hits something. If I'm not mistaken, you get an X-ray photon when an accelerated electron hits certain materials, from knocking another electron, or bremsstrahlung.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by blueg3 (192743)

          Yes. I think at these energies they're concerned about the electrons more than the resulting X-rays, but decelerating electrons do generally produce X-rays as an entertaining side effect.

          • A paper on "How are accelerated electrons produced?" could simply answer, "They're accelerated."

            How about: stars are cathodes and something around the star, like those big magnetic loops we see in a flare, are the anode.

    • the slashdot audience is already well versed in the idea that these killer electron waves can cause all sorts of conditions, regardless of what you call them. I just hope that if it happens to me that I'll get a good super-power and not be a reject from society.
      • a reject from society

        Call me cautious, but I'd be more worried about becoming a reject from the "still alive" bin.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Uhhh, except that X-rays are not electrons...

    • That's no ordinary electron. That's the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered subatomic particle you ever set eyes on. Look, that electron's got a mean streak a mile wide, it's a killer!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Zancarius (414244)

        That's no ordinary electron. That's the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered subatomic particle you ever set eyes on.

        I like how the summary reads almost exactly like that.

        I confess that my first thoughts when reading about these evil electrons were to contemplate the likes of lightning. And maybe high voltage sources. After all, those can certainly damage electronics and harm human tissue. Oh, how dreadful!

        Ah, but that's right. Lightning is a natural earth-based phenomenon. Pity it's so ordinary.

  • by GMThomas (1115405) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:45PM (#31487458) Homepage
    Maybe if they wouldn't be so negative all the time, they wouldn't want to kill anyone.
    • by Yvan256 (722131)
      I'm a Canadian Neutron, eh?
      • by sconeu (64226)

        What make a Neutron turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or was it ust born with a heart full of neutrality?

      • Damn neutral extremists! There are left, and right, and neutral. Their commonality: They strongly stand by their views, even when wrong. (Only half joking.)

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      I have found the "god particle". It is simply the anti-Killer Electron or life-giving positron.
  • Tin-foil hats, a bit of duct tape, don't forget to deposit sperm or ova before you go, and think of all the money you'll save by being able to glow in the dark ... even better than a CF bulb.
  • From TFA: Thanks to this analysis of Cluster data, if the killer electrons happen to be ejected towards Earth, we now know that they can strike the atmosphere within just 15 minutes.

    "Take off every Killer Positron, for great justice!"
  • Didn't they do a movie about this a few years back? The electrons were all unusually large, and red, though. Seems to me they were almost, I dunno, tomato-shaped.

    I'm not Herman Farbage, so I'm not terribly concerned.

    • Where's Godzilla when you need him? He could dispatch your attacking killer electon-atoes without breaking a sweat.
  • The big question is.... will tinfoil stop them?!?!

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Hognoxious (631665)

      The big question is.... will tinfoil stop them?!?!

      Tinfoil will stop anything. The question is, "how thick does it need to be?"

    • by jo_ham (604554)

      To a superfast electron, a tinfoil hat is 99% empty space. They'll just pass right through.

  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:12PM (#31487826)
    I'm not worried! The positrons will save us!
  • Someone is now working on a killer electron death ray. That pisses me off because I'm still waiting for hand held blasters. And my Flying Car.

    Focus, Dammit!
  • Shouldn't said electron be routed around astronauts if they are in a metallic space station, and what satellites have exposed circuitry? And how can electrons kill without current?

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      A traveling electron IS a current...

    • Re:Faraday cage? (Score:4, Informative)

      by John Hasler (414242) on Monday March 15, 2010 @09:06PM (#31490478) Homepage

      > And how can electrons kill without current?

      You can call them "high-energy beta particles" if it makes you more comfortable.

    • by pclminion (145572)

      A Faraday cage blocks electromagnetic fields basically by reflecting them -- it's a mirror. An electron is not an electromagnetic field. An electron is an electron. Your Faraday cage is uncharged. Why would an electron interact with it? If the electron actually struck the metal, it MIGHT be bound to the metal, but at relativistic speeds an electron is more like a bullet which simply passes through things, dissipating energy as it goes.

      Out in the wild universe, energies, velocities, and field strengths can b

      • by scorp1us (235526)

        Lets contemplate and "electron striking metal". Given that the metal is in a simple case, made of a singular type of atom, which contains a vast amount pf empty space, electrons, neutrons and protons, and that it already travels at or near the speed of light, how much energy in excess of the norm can it it impart? Also, one it enters the lattice of the metal, why would it not just be integrated into the electron shells? Every atom should be a giant magnet and effectively absorb the electron.

        • by pclminion (145572)

          Lets contemplate and "electron striking metal". Given that the metal is in a simple case, made of a singular type of atom, which contains a vast amount pf empty space, electrons, neutrons and protons, and that it already travels at or near the speed of light, how much energy in excess of the norm can it it impart? Also, one it enters the lattice of the metal, why would it not just be integrated into the electron shells? Every atom should be a giant magnet and effectively absorb the electron.

          Well, you can

  • beta rays (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    o noes! Beta rays have changed their name to killer electrons. We are doomed.

  • For the children.

  • Really.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by anonymousNR (1254032)
    I am having a big problem these days figuring out which article at slashdot does not belong to Idle category.
    Yeah I know this is Redundant.
    I needed a good place to start burning my karma anyway.
  • Title humor (Score:4, Funny)

    by owlstead (636356) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:47PM (#31488368)

    In case someone does not get the joke embedded in the title:
    http://www.badmovies.org/movies/killtomato/killtomato-song.wav [badmovies.org]

    Attaaaaaaack of the killer electrons!

  • Anything that can fry the bejesus off your balls . . . is good for their business.

    Law enforcement authorities love'em.

    "Oh, please, resist arrest . . . this Taser Killer Electron is all charged up and ready to go . . . now tell me . . . do you feel lucky . . . punk!

    Taser Killer Electron . . . when regular, wimpy-ass electrons just can't get the job done!

  • It certainly wasn't "electrons" I saw at first glance. I thought there must have been some cheap dodgy form of Viagra on the market with really bad side effects!
  • Obvious (Score:4, Funny)

    by sycodon (149926) on Monday March 15, 2010 @06:22PM (#31488786)

    For many years, the mechanism by which killer electrons are produced has remained poorly understood

    Isn't it obvious? Climate Change of course.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    the runaway Toyotas.

  • increase by a factor of more than ten times

    Just like the x times less [slashdot.org] phrase, the "by a factor of X times" phrase just makes me wish that Slashdot would implement last-chance review [xkcd.com] before an editor is allowed to post.

    For reference, "ten times" is a factor of 1.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No, ten times is indeed a factor of 10. Ten times is one ORDER OF MAGNITUDE, though. Sheesh. Learn the language.

  • I've posted on this before. These electrons are being emitted from a small brown dwarf star interloping through our solar system, it's that simple. Yeah, NASA knows but they won't say. Crow.
  • can increase by a factor of more than ten times

    So let’s say, from
    0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001
    to
    0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001
    ?

  • They will rightly be called killer electrons when the GPS system goes tango-uniform and I can't fly home and strangle somone!

    Dave

  • We're gonna need a smaller boat...

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