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NASA is set to launch its Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) to explore the most intense areas of radiation around Earth
On Aug. 31, 2012, a giant prominence on the sun erupted, sending out particles and a shock wave that traveled near Earth. This event may have been one of the causes of a third radiation belt that appeared around Earth a few days later.
NASA says the probes will give scientists the data they need to understand how the invisible Van Allen radiation belts (named for their discoverer, James Van Allen) behave and react to changes in the sun, thereby contributing to Earth's space weather.
NASA says the Van Allen radiation belt mission's general scientific objectives are to: discover which processes accelerate and transport the particles in the radiation belt, and under what conditions; understand and quantify the loss of electrons from the radiation belts; determine the balance between the processes that cause electron acceleration and those that cause losses; understand how the radiation belts change in the context of geomagnetic storms.
Here NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes A and B are secured to work stands in the Astrotech payload processing facility, where technicians work to clean and inspect the two spacecraft.
Here technicians attach the payload fairing holding the RBSP spacecraft to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in Florida.
Here the spacecraft are ready for encapsulation in the payload faring at the Astrotech payload processing facility. The fairing will house and protect the spacecraft during liftoff and flight through the atmosphere.
The RBSP mission will launch on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
An artist's rendition of what the two Radiation Belt Storm Probe spacecraft will look like in space.
NASA says particles from the radiation belts can penetrate into spacecraft and disrupt electronics, short circuits or upset memory on computers. The particles are also dangerous to astronauts traveling through the region. NASA said it needs models to help predict hazardous events in the belts, and that RBSP will help solve that problem. The most intense area of radiation within the outer belt is between about 9,000-12,000 miles above Earth's surface
Image showing the two main radiation belts, the outer belt and the inner belt. The model was developed at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Shown here are representative orbits for three GPS and one geosynchronous spacecraft. (Figure courtesy R. V. Hilmer, Air Force Research Laboratory)
Two giant doughnuts of plasma surround Earth, trapped within a region known as the Van Allen radiation belts. The belts lie close to Earth; satellites in geostationary orbit are above and satellites in low Earth orbit are generally below the belts. The outer radiation belt is typically about 8,400 to 36,000 miles above Earth's surface.
A close-up of one of the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe satellites in orbit around Earth.
NASA video on satellites flying into belt.
NASA video on belt mission.
NASA facts about radiation: Two radiation belts filled with electrons and charged particles surround Earth. The inner one is fairly stable, but the outer one swells and shrinks over time. When the inner belt swells, this region of dangerous radiation expands to include the orbits of the International Space Station and many other satellites.
NASA facts about radiation: The inner radiation belt was discovered with data from the very first American satellite, Explorer 1. Explorer 1 launched into Earth's orbit on a Jupiter C missile from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 31, 1958. The outer radiation belt was discovered a few months after the inner belt using data from Explorer IV and Pioneer 3, both launched in 1958. When the radiation belts were first discovered, the radiation was so intense that at first scientists thought they might be recording a Soviet nuclear test, NASA said.
More than 800 satellites operate in the radiation belts for communication and navigation.
NASA says the largest single hazard for astronauts traveling to Mars will be overcoming exposure to solar storms and radiation. One sensor on the RBSP spacecraft measures their lifetime radiation exposure giving engineers accurate information to build radiation tolerant spacecraft and instrumentation in the future.