Exploring the Van Allen Belts: Radiation Belt Storm Probes

Artist's rendition of the Van Allen Belts with the RBSP, Photo Credit: JHU/APL

In a little less than a year, NASA plans to launch a two-year mission to explore extreme space weather through the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP). These twin probes will be launched into common orbits around the Earth to gather data to assist the scientific community to gain a better understanding of the radiation belts around the planet. On of the goals of this study is for scientists to better understand space weather and the effects of the radiation belts on that weather. This mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) program, which was designed to gain an understanding of how and why the Sun is always changing and how it affects planetary subsystems. Scientists also hope to gather information how the varying sun may affect humans in space as well as on Earth.

So what exactly are the radiation belts? NASA describes them as “two donut-shaped regions encircling the Earth, where high-energy particles are trapped by our planet’s magnetic field”. These regions contain energetic ions and electrons that have been held close to Earth by its magnetic field, and they are dangerous to astronauts and spacecraft, alike. These regions are often referred to the Van Allen Belts, named for their discovered James Van Allen.

 Scientists hope to use the data collected from the two spacecraft to develop empirical and physics-based models of the Van Allen Belts. By understanding the behavior of these belts and accurately modeling their effects, engineers will in turn be able to design spacecraft that are better suited to withstand the radiation. These models will also be useful tools for predicting space weather phenomena that could be harmful to spacecraft or astronauts in orbit. “Space weather” refers to changes in solar winds and periodic bursts – properly called coronal mass ejections – that emit billions of tons of matter that can cause large magnetic storms in space around Earth.

The RBSP will carry several instruments to observe the surrounding environment and collect data on the electric and magnetic fields and waves within the Van Allen Belts. Since the two spacecraft will be in a pattern where one will “follow” the other, it will be essential that they are capable of taking identical measurements to record the changes in the radiation belts through space and time. The RBSP is a large effort with several teams involved in the development and instrumentation including: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Boston University, University of Iowa, University of Minnesota, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the National Reconnaissance Office.

For more information on this mission or to monitor the countdown for launch on August 15, 2012 visit the RBSP website.

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