Radiation Belt Storm Probes To Launch Friday

By  //  August 20, 2012

Will Study Solar Radiation

BREVARD COUNTY • CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launch carrying NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes has been rescheduled to Friday.

The Radiation Belt Storm Probe mission includes twin probes designed to study solar radiation and its relation to earth''s magnetic field. (Image courtesy NASA)

The rocket is set to lift off at 4:07 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and has a 20-minute launch window.

The launch was postponed a day for repair of a faulty engine condition that was found during testing of another Atlas vehicle in Alabama. The one-day delay will allow additional time for engineers to complete their assessments and verify that a similar condition does not exist on the RBSP launch vehicle engine.

The twin probes will collect data about the phenomena known as “space weather,” which are changes in the space environment caused by the sun.

Space weather has been known to cripple GPS satellites, create power grid failures on earth and increase levels of radiation exposure for pilots and air passengers during polar flights.

“The dramatic dynamics of Earth’s radiation belts caused by space weather are highly unpredictable,” said Barry Mauk, Radiation belt Storm Probes project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “One of the fundamental objectives of the RBSP mission is to use Earth’s magnetosphere as a natural laboratory to understand generally how radiation is created and evolves throughout the universe. There are many mysteries that need to be resolved.”

The Radiation Belt Storm probe mission is intended to give scientists a greater understanding of solar radiation and universe particle acceleration.

The probes will give NASA information about space nearest the earth through study of the planet’s radiation belts.

Both probes include five scientific instruments inside their eight-sided frames, which are about 6 feet wide, 3 feet tall and each weighs about 1,475 pounds.

The instruments on the $670 million probes will measure plasma processes that create damaging ions and electrons associated with solar radiation.

An artist's rendition of what the two Radiation Belt Storm Probe spacecraft will look like in space. (Image courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

The probes themselves were designed  to contain aluminum shielding about one- third of an inch thick to protect their delicate instruments from the intense solar radiation, although to measure it, some radiation must be able to pass through a series of tiny openings on the probes.

Each probe also will gather data about the properties of charged particles that make up the earth’s radiation belts, how plasma waves interact with the radiation belts and earth’s magnetic field.

NASA will maneuver each probe into identical yet distinct elliptical orbits to best cover the entire radiation belt region.

The probes also are designed to gather information about the Van Allen Belt. It was initially discovered by James Van Allen in 1958, but has remained a puzzle to scientists since. It is a region where charged subatomic particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields, forming rings of plasma that damage spacecraft electronics and poses a health hazard to astronauts.

Ultimately, the goal of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes is to help scientists develop a new radiation protection standard  needed for future spacecraft design.

NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland will manage the probes over the extent of its two–year mission.