August 9, 2006

Physicist James Van Allen Dies

CHICAGO (Reuters) - American physicist James Van Allen, who helped propel the United States into the space race and discovered the bands of radiation that surround the Earth that were later named for him, died on Wednesday, the University of Iowa said.

Van Allen, a longtime professor at the university, died from undisclosed causes. He was 91.

He designed numerous instruments carried aboard U.S. space probes beginning with the instrumentation and Geiger counters aboard Explorer 1. The satellite went into Earth orbit January 31, 1958 -- four months after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik I triggered unease about America's scientific prowess.

The Explorer mission led to the discovery of a doughnut-shaped region of charged-particle radiation encircling the Earth, now called the Van Allen belts.

Long a critic of manned space flight, Van Allen called himself "a member of the loyal opposition" in favoring using less expensive remote-controlled spacecraft rather than astronauts to explore space.

Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1914, Van Allen's early scientific achievements included using rockets carried aloft by balloons to discover electrons in the atmosphere believed to generate the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

He would later place experiments aboard and monitor the progress of several of the Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini spacecraft.

"James Van Allen was one of the university's most influential and best-regarded scholars of all time. Yet he remained the most unassuming and caring man. We will all miss him deeply," University of Iowa Provost Michael Hogan said.

He is survived by his wife, five children, and seven grandchildren.