Washington: NASA has launched its Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our planet’s radiation belts.
It was launched into the predawn skies at 4:05a.m. EDT Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
“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 at Headquarters in Washington.
“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,” he noted.
The two satellites, each weighing just less than 1,500 pounds, comprise the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate this 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 coronal mass ejections and sometimes swell dramatically. When this occurs, they can pose dangers to communications, GPS satellites and human spaceflight.
“We have never before sent such comprehensive and high-quality instruments to study high radiation regions of space. RBSP was crafted to help us learn more about, and ultimately predict, the response of the radiation belts to solar inputs,” said Barry Mauk, RBSP project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.
The hardy RBSP satellites will spend the next 2 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 finally will be able to gather data from within the belts themselves, learning how they change over space and time.
RBSP was lifted into orbit aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex-41, as the rocket’s plume lit the dark skies over the Florida coast. The first RBSP spacecraft is scheduled to separate from the Atlas rocket’s Centaur booster 1 hour, 18 minutes, 52 seconds after launch.
The second RBSP spacecraft is set to follow 12 minutes, 14 seconds later. Mission controllers using APL’s 60-foot satellite dish will establish radio contact with each probe immediately after separation.