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NASA: Studying the Van Allen Belts 60 Years After America's First Spacecraft 2018.02.02

NASA, USA - January 31, 2018 - Sixty years ago today, the United States launched its first satellite into space. Dubbed Explorer 1, the spacecraft followed just months after the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 and 2 spacecraft commenced the Space Age. Data captured by the Geiger counter aboard Explorer 1 heralded the emergence of space physics and ushered in a new era of technology and communications.

NASA’s Van Allen Probes Survive Extreme Radiation Five Years On.
The identical Van Allen Probes will follow similar orbits that will take them through both the inner and outer radiation belts.
The Van Allen Probes (formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP)) will study two extreme and dynamic regions of space known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts that surround Earth.
Named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, these two concentric, donut-shaped rings are filled with high-energy particles that gyrate, bounce, and drift through the region, sometimes shooting down to Earth's atmosphere, sometimes escaping out into space.
The radiation belts swell and shrink over time as part of a much larger space weather system driven by energy and material that erupt off the sun's surface and fill the entire solar system.
September 1, 2017
Photo courtesy of NASA / JHU / APL
 

NASA, USA - January 31, 2018

By Mara Johnson-Groh
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.



Tick, tick, tick. The device — a Geiger counter strapped to a miniature tape recorder — was registering radiation levels a thousand times greater than anyone expected.
As the instrument moved higher, more than 900 miles above the surface, the counts ceased. Scientists were baffled. It was early 1958, the United States had just launched its first spacecraft, and a new discipline of physics was about to be born.

Space weather refers to conditions on the sun and in the space environment that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems.
The study of the sun and its interaction with Earth and the solar system is called Heliophysics
.
Photo courtesy of NASA
 
Sixty years ago today, the United States launched its first satellite into space.
Dubbed Explorer 1, the spacecraft followed just months after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 and 2 spacecraft commenced the Space Age.
Data captured by the Geiger counter aboard Explorer 1 heralded the emergence of space physics and ushered in a new era of technology and communications.

The three men responsible for the success of Explorer 1, America's first Earth satellite which was launched January 31, 1958.
At left is Dr. William H. Pickering, former director of JPL, which built and operated the satellite.
Dr. James A. van Allen, center, of the State University of Iowa, designed and built the instrument on Explorer that discovered the radiation belts which circle the Earth.
At right is Dr. Wernher von Braun, leader of the Army's Redstone Arsenal team which built the first stage Redstone rocket that launched Explorer 1.
Photo courtesy of NASA
 
Far above Earth’s atmosphere, the radiation picked up by the instrument aboard Explorer 1 wasn’t of Earthly origin.
In fact, it was from a region scientists previously considered largely void of particles.
Prior to launch, scientists expected to measure cosmic rays — high-energy particles primarily originating beyond the solar system — which they had previously studied with ground- and balloon-based instruments.
But what they found far outpaced the levels of radiation that would be expected from cosmic rays alone.

Explorer 1 was the first U.S. satellite and the first satellite to carry science instruments.
The satellite was launched on Jan. 31, 1958, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., USA.
Explorer 1 followed a looping flight path that orbited Earth once every 114 minutes.
The satellite went as high as 2,565 kilometers (1,594 miles) and as low as 362 kilometers (225 miles) above Earth.
Photo courtesy of NASA
 
The radiation recorded by Explorer 1 was humanity’s first glimpse of Earth’s radiation belts, two concentric rings of energetic particles surrounding the planet.
The inner belt, composed predominantly of protons, and the outer belt, mostly electrons, would come to be named the Van Allen Belts, after James Van Allen, the scientist who led the charge designing the instruments and studying the radiation data from Explorer 1.


Explorer 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 31, 1958.
Photo courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
 
The outer belt is made up of billions of high-energy particles that originate from the Sun and become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, an area known as the magnetosphere.
The inner belt results from interactions of cosmic rays with Earth’s atmosphere.
Satellites that unwittingly or intentionally venture into the belts can be damaged by the radiation, which could have an impact on unprotected astronauts as well.
Understanding the dynamics of this region is essential for protecting technological assets and planning crewed space missions.

This early schematic of the Van Allen Belts' structure was created after the first American satellite discovered their existence in 1958.
Photo courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Historic image of Van Allen Belts courtesy of NASA’s Langley Research Center
 
“Our current technology is ever more susceptible to these accelerated particles because even a single hit from a particle can upset our ever smaller instruments and electronics,” said David Sibeck, Van Allen Probes mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“As technology advances, it’s actually becoming even more pressing to understand and predict our space environment.”

Shortly after launch on Aug. 30, 2012, particle detection instruments aboard NASA's twin Van Allen Probes revealed to scientists the existence of a new, transient, third radiation belt around Earth, shown in this image.
Photo courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory
 
Sixty years later, scientists are still working to understand the peculiar and puzzling nature of the Van Allen Belts.
In 2012, NASA launched the twin Van Allen Probes to study particle behavior in the dynamic region.


https://www.nasa.gov/van-allen-probes  

Equipped with superior, radiation-hardened technology, the Van Allen Probes’ instruments go far beyond Explorer 1’s Geiger counter to observe particles, waves and fields in the radiation belts.

Different types of plasma waves triggered by various mechanisms, occupy different regions of space around Earth.
July 17, 2017
Photo courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith
 
“We study the Van Allen radiation belts both for scientific reasons — to understand particle acceleration, which occurs through the universe — and practical reasons — because particles accelerated to high energies are a hazard to both astronauts and spacecraft,” Sibeck said.
“At Earth, we can study these details and apply that knowledge both to our journey to Mars and to better protect astronauts at the Moon.”

NASA’s Van Allen Probes Survive Extreme Radiation Five Years On.
NASA Listens in as Electrons Whistle While They Work.
Space is not empty, nor is it silent
.
While technically a vacuum, space nonetheless contains energetic charged particles, governed by magnetic and electric fields, and it behaves unlike anything we experience on Earth.
In regions laced with magnetic fields, such as the space environment surrounding our planet, particles are continually tossed to and fro by the motion of various electromagnetic waves known as plasma waves.
These plasma waves, like the roaring ocean surf, create a rhythmic cacophony that — with the right tools — we can hear across space.
July 17, 2017
Photo courtesy of NASA
 
From the beginning, the Van Allen Probes set a pace of rapid discovery.
Within days of their launch, the probes found the void between the inner and outer belts — which was thought to be empty — was occupied by a third, temporary belt.
The third belt lasted just a month, but appeared again later in the mission with major solar activity.


The Van Allen Belts, shown in green in this illustration, are concentric doughnut-shaped belts filled with charged particles, trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.
The study combined data from FIREBIRD II, which cruises at a height of 310 miles above Earth, and from one of the two Van Allen Probes, which travel in a wide orbit high above the planet.
From different vantage points, they could gain a better understanding of the chain of cause and effect of the loss of these high-energy electrons.
November 15, 2017
Photo courtesy of NASA / Tony Phillips
 
Explorer 1’s discoveries six decades ago paved the way for new generations of spacecraft to explore the radiation belts.
Today, with the help of other missions, like the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS, and Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, missions, NASA scientists are continually unveiling new secrets in our magnetic space neighborhood.


https://www.nasa.gov/artemis  

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mms/index.html  

Multipoint observations are essential to understanding the belts’ dynamics and in 2016, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, launched the satellite Arase to cooperate with the Van Allen Probes mission in studying the radiation belts.

A new CubeSat mission, the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer or CERES, is scheduled to launch in April 2018 to work in conjunction with the Van Allen Probes, studying the interactions between plasma waves and electrons in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Schematic of the Van Allen Belts discovered by Explorer 1.
Photo courtesy of NASA
 
“We don’t know what other discoveries are hidden in the radiation belts,” said Shrikanth Kanekal, Van Allen Probes deputy mission scientist and CERES principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“As technology improves, who knows what we’ll be able to find.”

Infographic on NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission.
Photo courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith
 

Related Links

• Learn more about the Van Allen Probes

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/rbsp/mission/index.html  

• Learn more about Explorer 1

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/explorer/explorer-overview.html  

• Learn more about NASA’s research on the Sun-Earth environment

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/index.html  


Source: NASA

https://www.nasa.gov/  



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