Radiation belt probe lifts off

Posted by Emma Woollacott

NASA's finally launched its Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore the Van Allen belts.

The mission launched aboard an Atlas V 401 rocketat 4:05am EDT yesterday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, after a series of delays.

The two probes were successfully released from the rocket's Centaur upper stage, and sent off saeparately into different orbits.

"Today, 11 years of hard work was realized by the science team as a number of us stood together watching the rocket lift off the pad," says Nicky Fox, RBSP deputy project scientist from  the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the mission for NASA.

"They are now at home in the Van Allen belts where they belong, and we can all finally breathe out now that solar panels are out on both of them."

The spacecraft will go through a 60-day commissioning period before beginning its prime mission. Operators will power up all flight systems and science instruments and deploy long antenna booms, two of which are more than 54 yards long.

Data about the particles that swirl through the radiation belts, and the fields and waves that transport them, will be gathered by five instrument suites, and analyzed almost immediately.

"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," says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"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."

The two satellites, each weighing just under 1,500 pounds, are the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate this hazardous regions of near-Earth space, known as the radiation belts.

These two belts encircle the planet and are filled with highly charged particles, sometimes swelling dramatically as a result of solar storms and coronal mass ejections. When this happens, there's a threat to communications, GPS satellites and astronauts.

The satellites - protected by special protective plating and rugged electronics - will spend the next two years looping through every part of both Van Allen belts, gathering data from within the belts themselves and learning how they change over space and time.

In addition, a space weather broadcast will transmit selected data from those instruments around the clock, giving researchers a check on current conditions near Earth.

"The excitement of seeing the spacecraft in orbit and beginning to perform science measurements is like no other thrill," says Richard Fitzgerald, RBSP project manager at APL. "The entire RBSP team, from across every organization, worked together to produce an amazing pair of spacecraft."