With concerns about climate change sparking debates throughout the United States and the world, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about the harm human intervention can have on our environment. A recent discovery made by NASA, however, shows that not every unintentional outcome of our interactions with the world around us proves negative, and in fact, we seem to have unintentionally created a Star Trek-like shield around our entire planet.

NASA’s Van Allen space probes have detected an artificial barrier that surrounds and encompasses our planet created by the use of very low-frequency radio communications, or VLFs.  Although these VLFs are used without any consideration for what they might be doing beyond our planet, they seem to be shielding us from high energy radiation flowing toward us from celestial bodies like our sun.

VLFs are normally produced by ground-based radio telescopes transmitting to submarines located deep beneath the oceans’ surface.  Although the transmissions are intended for earth-bound recipients beneath the waves, the signals continue out into the space surrounding our planet, where they serve as a sort of ionic barrier between us and the type of radiation released by things like geomagnetic storms caused by solar flares.

These storms can potentially have the same effect on Earth based electronics as an Electro Magnetic Pulse, knocking out communications and rendering anything electrical not shielded from its effects useless.

The VLFs we use to communicate with submarines form a sort of bubble around our planet.  When that bubble reaches the inner edge of Van Allen radiation belts, which are zones of charged particles that come from solar wind and are then captured by Earth’s magnetic field, the interaction between the two creates a radiation barrier that can block potentially harmful charges.

“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth,” Phil Erickson, one of the scientists involved, said in a statement.

The Van Allen belts provide earth with the same sort of protection, but scientists say the presence of VLFs around our planet has pushed the radiation boundary much further out as compared to data gathered in the 1960s.

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Currently, our accidental shield is not consistent, and likely hasn’t done much to protect us that the Van Allen belts wouldn’t have anyway, but this discovery could have significant impacts on the future of solar radiation shielding, both on earth, and in space fairing vessels.

“It’s like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, ‘Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,’ ” said John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory and a study co-author.

Most importantly, this discovery could be used to harness VLFs in a way that could protect us from a massive coronal ejection on the sun, which would lob huge amounts of harmful radiation toward the earth and potentially send us back into the dark ages.  A VLF shield system could potentially be used to diffuse the majority of the risk, assuming it can be harnessed appropriately.

On a daily basis, this could also lead to a system that removes excess radiation from the near earth environment, making stays aboard the International Space Station as well as other orbital vessels significantly safer for those on board.

Plans are currently underway to test VLF transmissions in the upper atmosphere to see if they can remove excess charged particles from the vicinity, which is a significant step toward harnessing this unintentional discovery.

 

Image courtesy of Space.com