LEWISBURG, UNION COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — In April, Bucknell University Physics and Astronomy professor, Jackie Villadsen discovered a planet orbiting a star. Just one month later she is part of another team that has made yet another discovery, the first radiation belt outside of our own solar system.

Professor Villadsen and her team consisted of Melodie Kao, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Amy Mioduszewski at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and Evgenya Shkolnik, a professor at Arizona State University`s School for Earth and Space Exploration.

Professor Villadsen and the team documented the first radiation belt observed outside of our solar system, using the “High Sensitivity Array, ” a coordinated group of 39 telescopic satellite dishes spanning a distance from Germany to Hawaii to capture high-resolution images of the radiation belt. These telescopic satellite dishes are also referred to as the “Earth-sized Telescope.”

This is the first time a radiation belt has been photographed outside of the known solar system and it’s 17 light years away from Earth. There are two radiation belts in the known solar system, one around Earth known as the Van Allen Belt, and one around Jupiter.

“It’s really necessary to get such a high-resolution image because we’re trying to zoom in on something so far away that it’s unprecedented,” Villadsen explained.

However, in order for the team to see what they photographed, an algorithm comes into the mix known as the Fourier Transform. So, every pair of telescopes collects as much light as possible and sends it back to the astronomy team in numbers. Then using the Fourier Transform, the team translates the numbers into an image, which can be read like music notes. A big blob equals a low note and a small, sharp edge is a high note.

Left Photo Credit: Melodie Kao & Amy Mioduszewski; Right Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Pictured above is what professor Villadsen and her team received from the “High Sensitivity Array.” On the left side is the actual image the team deciphered of the radiation belt around the brown dwarf, and on the right side is Jupiter’s inner electron radiation belt.

This discovery is so important because it shows that radiation belts can exist around planets, brown dwarfs, and even stars.

“Brown dwarfs are like the big siblings of exoplanets that are bigger and brighter, which allows us to see them from the telescope. For years it’s been a mystery why brown dwarfs can make bright radio waves. Our images show that the radio waves come from a radiation belt, which is a donut of high-energy electrons zooming around the edges of this brown dwarf,” Villadsen added.

The team measured extremely high-energy particles that underscore the dangers of radiation belts, although this brown dwarf is too far away to be dangerous to Earth.

“By combining radio dishes from across the world, we can make incredibly high-resolution images to see things no one has ever seen before. Our image is comparable to reading the top row of an eye chart in California while standing in Washington, D.C.,” Villadsen continued.

The research founded by the team was supported by NASA and the Heising-Simons Foundation.