Local heating of radiation belt electrons to ultra-relativistic energies

Nat Commun. 2020 Sep 10;11(1):4533. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-18053-z.


Electrically charged particles are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, forming the Van Allen radiation belts. Observations show that electrons in this region can have energies in excess of 7 MeV. However, whether electrons at these ultra-relativistic energies are locally accelerated, arise from betatron and Fermi acceleration due to transport across the magnetic field, or if a combination of both mechanisms is required, has remained an unanswered question in radiation belt physics. Here, we present a unique way of analyzing satellite observations which demonstrates that local acceleration is capable of heating electrons up to 7 MeV. By considering the evolution of phase space density peaks in magnetic coordinate space, we observe distinct signatures of local acceleration and the subsequent outward radial diffusion of ultra-relativistic electron populations. The results have important implications for understanding the origin of ultra-relativistic electrons in Earth's radiation belts, as well as in magnetized plasmas throughout the solar system.