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NASA Finally Launches Radiation Belt Storm Probes

August 30, 2012
Image Caption: Screen capture from NASA TV of the Atlas V carrying RBSP on the launch pad at the time of the announcement that the launch would be scrubbed. Credit: NASA TV

Watch the Video: Launch of Radiation Belt Storm Probes

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Thursday morning, after numerous delays, NASA finally launched its Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission.

The twin spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday at 4:05 a.m. EDT, and both are now on their way to one of the most dangerous places within Earth’s orbit.

The RBSP took off aboard an Atlas V rocket, keeping up the United Launch Alliance launch vehicle’s perfect record of seven for seven.

The mission faced its first delay back on August 23, and another the next day due to a problem with Atlas V’s tracking beacon.

Hurricane Isaac led officials to the current launch date, ensuring that the storm would be clear from Cape Canaveral to keep the rocket’s perfect record alive.

The two spacecraft are now on their way to orbit the Earth and study the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle it.

This region changes in response to the sun, and the spacecraft will help give scientists more information to better understand this environment.

“We live in the atmosphere of the sun. So when the sun sneezes, the Earth catches a cold,” Nicky Fox, deputy project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md, said in a press release. “So whatever is happening on the sun, the Earth will feel an effect and will respond to that changing space weather.”

The twin probes are carrying payloads full of scientific instruments to help scientists monitor and characterize changes within the radiation belts.

“The Radiation Belt Storm Probes will give us a better understanding of how the radiation belts actually work, and allow us to do a better job of predicting and protecting against the radiation that’s up there in the future,” Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton, also of APL, said.

The mission required two probes because scientists want to be able to distinguish transient features from those that are there for a longer period.

“If you imagine having two buoys in the ocean, and one goes up, and comes down again, you don’t know anything about what caused that to go up and down,” Fox said. “If both of them go up, then you know you’ve got a very big feature that is affecting both of them at the same time. If you one goes up, then the other goes up, you can measure how fast that wave has traveled between them, and what direction it’s going into. And if only one goes up and comes down again, then you’ve got a very, very localized feature that didn’t travel anywhere.”

The 1,400 pound, six feet wide probes are now on a short journey towards the radiation belts to begin a three year mission. For some who have been working on the mission, it has been a long time coming.

“The team has been preparing in total for about six years for the RBSP mission. The early planning began that long ago, back in about the 2006 timeframe. The core team came in at about contract award time in March of 2009,” Tim Dunn, RBSP launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), said. “So we’ve been very heavily involved with RBSP for the last three years.”

Once the probes reach their orbits, they will be undergoing a 60-day “commissioning period” to ensure all its instruments check out.

“After you launch, after you get through the environments of launch and when you’re up there in the space environment, you want to make sure everything’s working perfectly,” Stratton said. “So that takes about 60 days after launch, and then we’ll start our prime mission as soon as that commissioning period is done.”

As soon as the commissioning period is over, and the probes start offering up a plethora of data for scientists to study, stay in touch with redOrbit to keep up with all the new discoveries.


Source: Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online



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