Video: Twin satellites to orbit Van Allen radiation belts

updated 8/30/2012 7:50:21 AM ET 2012-08-30T11:50:21

An unmanned rocket turned night into day early Thursday as two heavily armored NASA spacecraft were launched into orbit to study Earth's harsh radiation belts, after a week of delays.

The twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes launched at 4:05 a.m. ET from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, soaring into space atop an unmanned United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The liftoff had been planned for Aug. 23, but it was pushed back two days due to technical glitches, and then another five days to avoid foul weather from Tropical Storm Isaac.

"It was a wonderful event, a very smooth countdown," NASA launch manager Tim Dunn said after the launch, adding that the Atlas 5 gave NASA's newest science satellites "a great ride."

"We're all thrilled. Just excited as can be," Dunn added.

After a 60-day commissioning period on orbit, the radiation-tracking spacecraft will begin the science phase of their two-year mission, which aims to help scientists understand how Earth's two doughnut-shaped Van Allen radiation belts affect our planet's space weather.

Such information could have considerable practical applications, researchers said, since extreme space weather can knock out satellites and disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids.

"RBSP will be able to predict the extremes and the dynamic conditions of space weather," Mona Kessel, program scientist for the $686 million mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told reporters during a prelaunch briefing on Aug. 20. [Launch Photos: NASA's Radiation Probes Blast Off]

Mysterious radiation belts
The twin solar-powered probes will ply the Van Allen belts, where trillions of high-energy charged particles from the sun have been trapped by Earth's magnetic field. These fast-moving particles can damage satellites and potentially pose a threat to orbiting astronauts.

To deal with this harsh radiation environment, critical components on each RBSP spacecraft are shielded by 0.33 inches (8.5 millimeters) of aluminum.

The inner Van Allen belt usually extends from the top of Earth's atmosphere to about 4,000 miles up (6,437 kilometers), while the outer one runs from around 8,000 to more than 26,000 miles above our planet (12,874 to 41,842 kilometers). The belts are dynamic, however, and can expand greatly during solar storms.

  1. Space news from
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

Though the two belts were discovered in 1958, they remain mysterious today. For example, the belts sometimes react quite differently to seemingly similar solar outbursts, for reasons scientists don't yet understand.

The RBSP team hopes the twin probes can help researchers get to the bottom of such puzzles.

"RBSP was designed to answer the questions of how these radiation belts are responding," said mission deputy project scientist Nicola Fox, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Working together
The nearly identical RBSP spacecraft are about 6 feet wide by 4 feet tall (1.8 by 1.2 meters), though their span increases to 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) with their solar panels deployed. Each weighs roughly 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms).

The probes will fly in formation through the Van Allen belts on highly elliptical orbits, mapping out the regions' magnetic fields and charged particle density with their eight science instruments.

"We need eight because we're measuring across this huge [particle] energy range," said Harlan Spence of the University of New Hampshire, one of the mission's principal investigators.

Launching two spacecraft rather than one is not redundant, scientists said. The probes' observations will allow researchers to determine whether differences in radiation levels inside the belts reflect changes across space or time.

Together, the RBSP spacecraft will precisely track how the Van Allen belts ebb and flow over time. This information — combined with observations from sun-watching spacecraft like NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory —could greatly improve scientists' space weather forecasts down the road, researchers said.

RBSP's measurements could also have more immediate benefits, they added.

The probes' observations "will be delivered in near real time to users all over the world, so that those users can use the space weather data to protect sensitive ground-based as well as space-based assets," said Michael Luther, deputy associate administrator for programs for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2013 All rights reserved. More from

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments