NASA probes studying Earth's radiation belts to celebrate two year anniversary

Sep 01, 2014 by Dwayne Brown
This image was created using data from the Relativistic Electron-Proton Telescopes on NASA's twin Van Allen Probes. It shows the emergence of a new third transient radiation belt. The new belt is seen as the middle orange and red arc of the three seen on each side of the Earth. Credit: APL, NASA

(Phys.org) —NASA's twin Van Allen Probes will celebrate on Saturday two years of studying the sun's influence on our planet and near-Earth space. The probes, shortly after launch in August 2012, discovered a third radiation belt around Earth when only two had previously been detected.

The radiation belts are layers of energetic charged particles held in place by the magnetic field surrounding our planet. The new third belt occurred only occasionally but persisted for as long as a month. This revealed to scientists the dynamic and variable nature of the radiation belts and provided new insight into how they respond to solar activity.

"The primary science objective of the Van Allen Probes is to provide understanding of how particles in the radiation belts form and change in response to energy input from the sun," said Mona Kessel, the mission's program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The discoveries and understanding gained have far exceeded expectations."

The probes, each weighing just less than 1,500 pounds, were specifically designed to withstand and study the harsh region around Earth. The belts are critical regions that have a connection to Earth's atmosphere and space-based technologies. The belts are affected by solar storms and and as a result, can swell dramatically. When this occurs, they can pose dangers to communications and GPS satellites, as well as humans in low-Earth orbit.

Formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, the mission was renamed Van Allen Probes in November 2012 in honor of Dr. James Van Allen, who discovered the two radiation belts in 1958.

The twin spacecraft have also revealed how particles in the heart of the belts can be accelerated to nearly the speed of light; proven that electrons in the belts are undergoing acceleration from very low frequency plasma waves; and shown persistent stripe-like structures are a common feature of the inner belt, and are caused by Earth's rotation, a mechanism previously thought to be incapable of such an effect.

"The Van Allen Probes mission has given us the means to validate theories about plasma physics and the acceleration processes going on inside the belts," said Barry Mauk, Van Allen Probes project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. "They also have shown us new structures and features in this region of space, the existence of which we had never suspected. It has been a very illuminating two years, and we look forward to many more with these remarkable spacecraft."

Explore further: Van Allen Probes show how to accelerate electrons

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Van Allen Probes show how to accelerate electrons

Jul 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —One of the great, unanswered questions for space weather scientists is just what creates two gigantic donuts of radiation surrounding Earth, called the Van Allen radiation belts. Recent data ...

NASA's BARREL returns successful from Antarctica

Apr 25, 2014

Three months, 20 balloons, and one very successful campaign: The team for NASA's BARREL – short for Balloon Array for Radiation belt Relativistic Electron Losses—mission returned from Antarctica in March ...

Observations and simulations improve space weather models

Jun 26, 2014

(Phys.org) —Los Alamos researchers and collaborators used data from NASA's Van Allen Probes to demonstrate an improved computer model to help forecast what is happening in the radiation environment of near-Earth ...

New NASA mission ready to brave Earth's radiation belts

Aug 10, 2012

(Phys.org) -- NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will send two spacecraft into the harsh environment of our planet's radiation belts. Final preparations have begun for launch on Thursday, Aug. ...

Recommended for you

Miranda: An icy moon deformed by tidal heating

8 hours ago

Miranda, a small, icy moon of Uranus, is one of the most visually striking and enigmatic bodies in the solar system. Despite its relatively small size, Miranda appears to have experienced an episode of intense ...

The latest observations of interstellar particles

14 hours ago

With all the news about Voyager 1 leaving the heliosphere and entering interstellar space you might think that the probe is the first spacecraft to detect interstellar particles. That isn't entirely true, ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Sep 01, 2014
LOL Two year turning of the year? Cummon "science writers", use ordinals as well as cardinal numbers.