An impenetrable barrier to ultrarelativistic electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts
Early observations1, 2 indicated that the Earth\textquoterights Van Allen radiation belts could be separated into an inner zone dominated by high-energy protons and an outer zone dominated by high-energy electrons. Subsequent studies3, 4 showed that electrons of moderate energy (less than about one megaelectronvolt) often populate both zones, with a deep \textquoteleftslot\textquoteright region largely devoid of particles between them. There is a region of dense cold plasma around the Earth known as the plasmasphere, the outer boundary of which is called the plasmapause. The two-belt radiation structure was explained as arising from strong electron interactions with plasmaspheric hiss just inside the plasmapause boundary5, with the inner edge of the outer radiation zone corresponding to the minimum plasmapause location6. Recent observations have revealed unexpected radiation belt morphology7, 8, especially at ultrarelativistic kinetic energies9, 10 (more than five megaelectronvolts). Here we analyse an extended data set that reveals an exceedingly sharp inner boundary for the ultrarelativistic electrons. Additional, concurrently measured data11 reveal that this barrier to inward electron radial transport does not arise because of a physical boundary within the Earth\textquoterights intrinsic magnetic field, and that inward radial diffusion is unlikely to be inhibited by scattering by electromagnetic transmitter wave fields. Rather, we suggest that exceptionally slow natural inward radial diffusion combined with weak, but persistent, wave\textendashparticle pitch angle scattering deep inside the Earth\textquoterights plasmasphere can combine to create an almost impenetrable barrier through which the most energetic Van Allen belt electrons cannot migrate.
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