Rocket Carrying Radiation Belt Storm Probes Launches

By  //  August 30, 2012

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Twin Probes Will Examine Van Allen Belts

BREVARD COUNTY • CAPE CANVERAL, FLORIDA The first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our planet’s radiation belts,  NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes, was launched at 4:05 a.m. today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket. 

An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:05 a.m. today carrying the Radiation Belt Storm Probes. (Image by Christey Krause)

Each weighing just less than 1,500 pounds, the two satellites (RBSP) make up the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate the hazardous regions of near-Earth space, known as the radiation belts.

These two belts, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, encircle the planet and are filled with highly charged particles. The belts are affected by solar storms and sometimes swell dramatically. When this happens, they can pose dangers to communications, GPS satellites and astronauts.

“Scientists will learn in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles, what causes them to change and how these processes affect the upper reaches of the atmosphere around Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The information collected from these probes will benefit the public by allowing us to better protect our satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth.”

The twin probes separated successfully from the Atlas rocket’s Centaur booster within an hour and a half after the launch.

Mission controllers using a 60-foot satellite dish then established radio contact with each probe immediately after its separation.

“We have never before sent such comprehensive and high-quality instruments to study high radiation regions of space,” said Barry Mauk, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “RBSP was crafted to help us learn more about, and ultimately predict, the response of the radiation belts to solar inputs.”

Spectators watch the launch of the Radiation Belt Storm probes mission at 4:05 a.m. today at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral. (Image by Christey Krause)

The RBSP satellites will spend the next two years looping through every part of both Van Allen belts.

By having two spacecraft in different regions of the belts at the same time, scientists will be able to gather data from within the belts themselves, learning how they change over space and time.

Engineers fortified the RBSP probes with protective plating and rugged electronics to operate and survive within this punishing region of space that other spacecraft avoid.

“The excitement of seeing the spacecraft in orbit and beginning to perform science measurements is like no other thrill,” said Richard Fitzgerald, RBSP project manager at APL. “The entire RBSP team, from across every organization, worked together to produce an amazing pair of spacecraft.”

Over the next two months, operators will power up all flight systems and science instruments and deploy long antenna booms, two of which are more than 54 yards long. Data about the particles that swirl through the belts and the fields and waves that transport them, will be gathered by five instrument suites designed and operated by teams at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; the University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and the University of New Hampshire in Durham; and the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va.

The data will be analyzed by scientists across the nation almost immediately.

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