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Feb 07, 2017 08:52 AM EST

NASA-Funded Program Finds Spots In The Atmosphere With Double Radiation Levels

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A NASA-funded program, Automated Radiation Measurements for Aerospace Safety (ARMAS), has found that there are spots in the sky where radiation levels are double than the usual. This would provide an entirely new understanding in the precautions needed for air travel.

New Scientist reported that research flights by ARMAS revealed that there are clouds that contain double the radiation levels than usual. The NASA-funded program was developed to find new ways of measuring and monitoring high-altitude radiation.

It has long been known that there are danger zones in the air such as volcanic ash clouds. Airliners are already equipped in identifying and avoiding these locations in the atmosphere. It has also been known that air travel exposes travellers and crew to cosmic rays.

This new data, however, reveals a significant risk that air travel brings. Researchers conducted over 260 flights where they investigated the radiation levels. Generally, the radiation levels were normal in terms of air travel. In about six instances, though, these levels surged, leading the researchers to suggest that the aircraft may have flown through a radiation cloud.

ARMAS principal investigator W. Kent Tobiska, of Los Angeles firm Space Environment Technologies, confirmed that they were able to witness the doubling of radiation exposure through the cloud.

Moreover, he noted that the two main sources of radiation, cosmic rays and solar wind, do not account for the surges. This led them to the third component: geomagnetic storms.

According to Science Alert, the magnetic field of the Earth traps particles from cosmic rays and solar winds in radiation belts. One example is the Van Allen radiation belt. These are similar to magnetic bottles that lock the particles. When events like solar wind bursts happen, though, charged particles in these bottles can leak and settle in the Earth's stratosphere.

The electrons are pushed into the upper atmosphere and crash with nitrogen and oxygen atoms and molecules. As a result, they create a spray of second- and third-level radiation, most likely in the form of gamma rays.

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