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Earth Space Science

Attack of the Killer Electrons 98

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 Pojut ( 1027544 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:47PM (#31487486) Homepage

    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."

  • 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 blueg3 ( 192743 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:15PM (#31487880)

    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 manner, at least among some journal papers.

  • 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.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:42PM (#31488302)

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

  • Re:Faraday cage? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:49PM (#31488394)

    A traveling electron IS a current...

  • Killer protons (Score:3, Informative)

    by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @08:08PM (#31489866)
    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 hit the space shuttle window and blasted a hole a few cm wide.

    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, or blast a circuit board into smithereens. [Hey MythBusters, are you listening?] We still don't really understand what phenomenon generates single particles with such a ridiculously high speed, but we're pretty sure black holes are involved in some way. Unfortunately you don't get much of a show when they strike the upper atmosphere because they glide to a stop as they generate a shitstorm of particle showers. If they actually hit the ground we might assume they were meteorites, or the hand of God... either shooting at people with bad aim, or punching holes in the ground and commanding us to play golf.
  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 16, 2010 @03:01AM (#31492518)

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

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