RBSP Launches to ‘Storms’ Heaven for Space Weather’s Secrets

Photo Credit: Mike Killian – ARES Institute / AmericaSpace

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) satellites slowly, steadily rode a Atlas V 401 launch vehicle to orbit Saturday, Aug. 30 at 4:05 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41). This is the second scientific mission launched under NASA’s “Living With a Star” (LWS) program and is designed to further scientists’ understanding of how the Sun powers space weather.

The Atlas V launch vehicle used to power this mission to orbit is the 401 configuration. This means that the rocket employed a four meter fairing and had no solid rocket boosters. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

The primary concern this evening was thick or Cumulous clouds in the area. Weather turned out to be a non-issue and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) team sent the Atlas rocket loose right on schedule. Weather caused a scrub during the second launch attempt on Aug. 25.

The first launch attempt took place on Aug. 24 was cancelled due to a C-band beacon determined to be “out of family” with previous hardware. Technicians removed and replaced the beacon from the top of the Atlas’s Centaur stage. These two scrubs actually marked the third delay of RBSP’s launch, which had been slated for Aug. 23, but an anomaly was detected in a similar engine and engineers requested additional time to review the data.

“The ULA team and our many mission partners are very proud of our role in delivering the twin RBPS spacecraft to orbit to conduct research about our space weather and gather important data that impacts our everyday life on Earth,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “The successful launch of this mission is a tribute to the partnerships with the highly skilled and professional teams from NASA’s Launch Services Program and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.”

NASA launched the first mission under the “Living With a Star” program, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in February of 2010. Much like SDO, RBSP will provide a better understanding of the Sun’s influence on Earth by studying the Earth’s radiation belts through a variety methods.

The RBSP satellites boast a suite of scientific instruments that will work to quantify the plasma processes that produce the highly-charged particles that create space weather. This weather has a negative impact on a wide range of devices that make modern life possible. These include the Global Positioning System (GPS), television and telecommunication systems, power grids, satellites and other services.

“The dramatic dynamics of Earth’s radiation belts caused by space weather are highly unpredictable,” said Barry Mauk, RBSP project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) 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.”

After the second launch attempt was scrubbed, United Launch Alliance (ULA) rolled the Atlas V 401 rocket and the RBSP spacecraft back to the adjacent Vertical Integration Facility to wait for Hurricane Isaac to pass. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Researching these phenomena is also crucial to NASA’s human space flight aspirations. The space agency has announced plans to launch astronauts to asteroids and perhaps, one day, Mars. If NASA restarts crewed deep space missions it will need to have a better grasp on what causes these conditions, how to predict them and most importantly how to protect crews and spacecraft from their effects.

RBSP is actually two satellites that will lap each other several times during the course of their two year mission. Photo Credit: Alan walters / awaltersphoto.com

To accomplish this the satellites will explore the entire Van Allen radiation belt region. The two satellites will have nearly identical, eccentric orbits and will lap each other several times during the course of the mission. RBSP will measure the charged particles that make up these belts and study how plasma waves ejected from the Sun interact with them.

Unlike most satellites that operate within the Van Allen radiation belts RBSP won’t be able to enter a “safe” mode (as it must study the most extreme conditions that occur in this region). Scientists therefore have opted to “harden” the spacecraft so that they will be able to survive whatever conditions arise during the course of their lifespan.

The mission has three primary mission objectives to find out what processes enhance the radiation belt, how do geomagnetic processes affect these belts and what are the primary driving forces behind relativistic electron loss.

RBSP has been built and will be managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory located in Laurel, Md. NASA’s LWS program is operated by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Photo Credit: Jason Rhian


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