NASA RBSP Probes To Study Space Weather Extremes
August 9, 2012

RBSP Space Weather Probes To Launch August 23 Carrying NJIT Instrument

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

After a 50-year quest to better understand space weather and Earth's Van Allen Radiation Belts, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Distinguished Research Professor and former Bell Labs scientist Louis J. Lanzerotti will once again see his dream rocket into space on August 23, 2012. That is when NASA'S twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) begin their mission to study the extremes of space weather.

One of the most respected and valued scientists today, Lanzerotti was the principal investigator to build one of five instruments aboard each of the two spacecraft that comprise the RBSP mission.

The RBSP mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star (LWS) program which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. LWS provides missions to improve our understanding of how and why the Sun varies, how the Earth and Solar System respond, and how the variability and response affects humanity in space and on Earth.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) manages the mission. APL built and will operate the two RBSP spacecraft for NASA. RBSP begins its exploration with a predawn Aug. 23, 2012 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket. Each RBSP spacecraft weighs about 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds) and carries an identical set of five instrument suites that will enable scientists to unlock the mysteries of the radiation belts surrounding Earth.

For Lanzerotti, the upcoming launch strikes a deeper, personal chord, harkening back to the start of his career in 1965 at the former AT&T Bell Labs. At the time, that was the dream job of every young physicist.

His monumental task was to analyze radiation data returned prior to the unexpected demise of the first active communications satellite, the 1962 Telstar I. Then state-of-the-art, Telstar I was a telecommunications pioneer that measured 36 inches wide, weighed 170-pounds and carried innovations such as transistors and solar panels. Telstar I supported 600 voice calls and one black and white television channel.

Massive influxes of radiation - some of it natural from the Van Allen belts and some of it man-made from nuclear testing - doomed Telstar I after only eight months. Still, before its demise, Telstar was able to mark the dawning of the age of modern telecommunications, carry the first transatlantic television signal and prove that satellite communications was feasible.

Lanzerotti recently spoke at a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of Telstar I hosted by Alcatel-Lucent.

"Bell Labs Engineer John Pierce who proposed the pioneering Telstar satellite did not expect Earth's space environment to be anything, but benign," recalled Lanzerotti. "James Van Allen's discovery of the radiation belts showed this not to be the case, so Telstar carried special sensors designed by Bell Labs physicist Walter Brown to measure the radiation environment that Telstar would encounter."

Today, scientists like Lanzerotti and others on the RBSP team and in heliophysics understand much more about the hazards posed by highly-charged particles in the radiation belts. The processes that drive and shaped the belts, however, are still poorly understood. Those are the mysteries that will be the focus of the RBSP mission.

Modern society's dependence on satellites and other space-based technologies that must operate in the belts make the research that will come from RBSP's data invaluable to building better-protected satellites in the future.

"We know considerably more now about the space environment and space weather," says Lanzerotti, "and RBSP will be a major step forward in quantifying and eventually predicting conditions in space around Earth."

The two spacecraft will fly in nearly identical, eccentric orbits that cover the entire radiation belt region, lapping each other several times over the course of the two-year mission. This will give researchers an unparalleled view into the mechanics and processes that change the size and intensity of the radiation belts over time. RBSP will explore space weather — changes in Earth's space environment caused by changes in the sun's energy flow — and especially its extreme conditions, which can disable satellites, cause power grid failures and disrupt GPS services.