NASA has renamed a recently launched mission that studies Earth’s radiation belts as the Van Allen Probes in honor of the late James Van Allen.
Van Allen was the head of the physics department at the University of Iowa who discovered the radiation belts encircling Earth in 1958.
The new name of the mission, previously called the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, was announced Friday during a ceremony at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
“James Van Allen was a true pioneer in astrophysics,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “His ground breaking research paved the way for current and future space exploration. These spacecraft now not only honor his iconic name but his mark on science.”
During his career, Van Allen was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, beginning with the first successful American satellite, Explorer I, and continuing with Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. He also helped develop the first plans for an International Geophysical Year was held in 1957. Van Allen, who worked at APL during and after World War II, also is credited with discovery of a new moon of Saturn in 1979, as well as radiation belts around that planet.
Launched Aug. 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Van Allen Probes comprise the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate the radiation belts that surround Earth. These two belts 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 activities.
“After only two months in orbit, the Van Allen Probes have made significant contributions to our understanding of the radiation belts,” says APL Director Ralph Semmel. “The science and data from these amazing twin spacecraft will allow for more effective and safe space technologies in the decades to come. APL is proud to have built and to operate this new resource for NASA and our nation, and we are proud to have the mission named for one of APL’s original staff.”
Operators have powered up all flight systems and science instruments on the probes. Data about the particles that swirl through the belts, and the fields and waves that transport them, are being gathered by five instrument groups designed and operated by teams at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; University of New Hampshire in Durham; and the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va.
The probes will spend two 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. 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 Van Allen Probes comprise the second mission in NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.