For years, scientists have wondered how "killer" electrons in space reach such high levels of energy that they can damage satellites and expose astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation. A team of physicists led by physicist Qiugang Zong is being recognized for discovering the answer last year.
The Jamaica Plain resident led the analysis of satellite data from the US and European space agencies, including information collected during an October 2003 geomagnetic storm that damaged more than 15 satellites. The impact of these "solar winds," in which high-speed, charged particles surge from the sun, triggers instabilities along Earth's magnetosphere that ultimately produce the high-speed electrons.
Zong's team from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's Center for Atmospheric Research was the first to measure the electrons' velocity, which reach as much as 94 percent of the speed of light, or more than 280,000 kilometers per second.
The team's findings - coauthored by research center codirector Paul Song of Andover and research assistant Xuzhi Zhou of Lowell - were published in the June 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.
The discovery was ranked No. 37 in Discover magazine's Top 100 Science Stories of 2007.
According to Zong, the information will be used to protect orbiting satellites as well as astronauts aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station. Exposure to electrons - for example, during a spacewalk - can be the equivalent of five chest X-rays.
"I'm excited and happy" about the recognition, said Zong, "because physics doesn't usually have this kind of public interest. I hope the work we've done is helpful."