Feeds

NASA launches armoured storm probes to the Van Allen belts

Survey of vast radioactive particle-Sargasso doughnuts

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

NASA has successfully launched two Radiation Belt Storm Probes into Earth's orbit to start a two-year mission to study the two giant donuts of plasma trapped in radiation surrounding the planet.

Graphic of Earth's Van Allen radiation belts

The heavily shielded satellites blasted off from Cape Canaveral at 9.05am BST this morning aboard an Atlas V rocket and were released one at a time from the craft's upper stage on different orbits.

The radiation belts around the Earth were first detected in 1958 by James Van Allen and were named after him. The belts have fields of plasma trapped inside them, which NASA hopes to study using the probes launched today.

The inner belt stays stable most of the time but the number of particles in the outer circle of radiation sometimes swells by 100 times or more, easily engulfing the communications satellites and research instruments orbiting Earth. To try to find out what makes the outer belt expand, boffins need to figure out what makes the plasma inside move in and out of the belts.

Plasmas usually flow along invisible magnetic field lines, creating their own magnetic fields as they go. If scientists can figure out how the plasma moves in space, they can use that data to understand space weather, solar flares and potentially damaging high energy particles.

"If you imagine having two buoys in the ocean, and one goes up, and comes down again, you don't know anything about what caused that to go up and down," Nicky Fox, deputy project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said.

"If both of them go up, then you know you've got a very big feature that is affecting both of them at the same time. If you one goes up, then the other goes up, you can measure how fast that wave has traveled between them, and what direction it's going into. And if only one goes up and comes down again, then you've got a very, very localised feature that didn't travel anywhere.

"So in order to be able to really understand what is going on, these very fine-scale features in our radiation belts, we have two spacecraft to do that," she explained.

The twin probes are equipped with a range of science instruments to find out where the extra energy and particles come from, where they go and what sends them on their way, and how do these changes affect the Earth's magnetic environment.

The satellites have also been toughened to survive in the radiation belts, which are the sort of environment spacecraft normally try to avoid. Each eight-sided probe weights over 1,400 pounds with electric and magnetic field sensors sticking out on booms that distance the instruments from the craft, which could end up generating its own electric and magnetic fields.

The probes are also equipped with metal shielding and data filters to protect against interference.

As well as giving boffins data on the radiation belts, the probes will also help NASA build better spaceships, Fox said.

"We'll be able to protect [craft] better and we also won't do costly overdesign," she explained. "It will help us protect astronauts that are out in Earth orbit, and it will benefit the science community by giving us a lot more information about fundamental particle physics."

Now that the satellites are in orbit, they'll do a two-month commissioning period during which the ground team will run system checks before the probes can start collecting data. ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.