Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Into the Danger Zone

Launch of the Atlas V carrying the RBSP probes from 
pad SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral.

There are so many rocket launches these days from America, Russia, Japan, China and the European space agency that it's hard to keep up with everything that's going up! Most of the satellites launched into orbit are communication satellites or secret national defense satellites (read: SPY satellites). So it's a notable event when we get a launch that sends probes to explore a science project. In this case, NASA has launched a pair of satellites into one of the most dangerous areas of outer space: Earth's Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Computer graphic of the radiation belts around the Earth.

On August 30th, NASA launched the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RRBSP) directly into an orbit intercepting the radiation belts. Named after Dr. James Van Allen, the scientist who discovered the belts (using Americans very first satellite, Explorer I), the donut-shaped belts are danger zones of highly-charged particles that can cause harm to satellites and astronauts placed into the wrong orbits. Even though we've known about these belts since their discovery at the beginning of the space age, we' don't understand a lot about how they work when they are hit by powerful blasts of solar wind and storms.

Graphic of the RBSP's flying into the danger zones.

Especially designed to be protected from the energetic particles, the RBSP's will orbit ( separate orbits) into the active zones of the Belts, and measure the interaction of particles when the belts encounter solar flares, solar storms, and the solar wind. They will detect and measure electric and magnetic fields, count energetic particles, and probe plasma waves in various frequencies. The mission is scheduled to last for two years. TO learn more, check out the report on the mission by SpaceFlight Now at http://www.spaceflightnow.com/atlas/av032/ .

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