NASA LAUNCHES RADIATION BELT STORM PROBES MISSION WASHINGTON -- NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore our planet's radiation belts, launched into the predawn skies at 4:05a.m. EDT Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. "Scientists will learn in unprecedented detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles, what causes them to change and how these processes affect the upper reaches of the atmosphere around Earth," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. "The information collected from these probes will benefit the public by allowing us to better protect our satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth." The two satellites, each weighing just less than 1,500 pounds, comprise the first dual-spacecraft mission specifically created to investigate this hazardous regions of near-Earth space, known as the radiation belts. These two belts, named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, 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. "We have never before sent such comprehensive and high-quality instruments to study high radiation regions of space," said Barry Mauk, RBSP project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. "RBSP was crafted to help us learn more about, and ultimately predict, the response of the radiation belts to solar inputs." The hardy RBSP satellites will spend the next 2 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. Designers fortified RBSP with special protective plating and rugged electronics to operate and survive within this punishing region of space that other spacecraft avoid. 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 excitement of seeing the spacecraft in orbit and beginning to perform science measurements is like no other thrill," said Richard Fitzgerald, RBSP project manager at APL. "The entire RBSP team, from across every organization, worked together to produce an amazing pair of spacecraft." RBSP was lifted into orbit aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex-41, as the rocket's plume lit the dark skies over the Florida coast. The first RBSP spacecraft is scheduled to separate from the Atlas rocket's Centaur booster 1 hour, 18 minutes, 52 seconds after launch. The second RBSP spacecraft is set to follow 12 minutes, 14 seconds later. Mission controllers using APL's 60-foot satellite dish will establish radio contact with each probe immediately after separation. During the next 60 days, operators will power up all flight systems and science instruments and deploy long antenna booms, two of which are more than 54 yards long. Data about the particles that swirl through the belts, and the fields and waves that transport them, will be gathered by five instrument suites designed and operated by teams at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; the University of Iowa in Iowa City; University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and the University of New Hampshire in Durham; and the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va. The data will be analyzed by scientists across the nation almost immediately. RBSP is the second mission in NASA's Living With a Star (LWS) program to explore aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. LWS is managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. APL built the RBSP spacecraft and will manage the mission for NASA. NASA's Launch Services Program at Kennedy is responsible for launch management. United Launch Alliance provided the Atlas V launch service. The Mission and the Probes The Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) is designed to help us understand the Sunís influence on Earth and Near-Earth space by studying the Earthís radiation belts on various scales of space and time. The instruments on NASAís Living With a Star Programís (LWS) Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will provide the measurements needed to characterize and quantify the plasma processes that produce very energetic ions and relativistic electrons. The RBSP mission is part of the broader LWS program whose missions were conceived to explore fundamental processes that operate throughout the solar system and in particular those that generate hazardous space weather effects in the vicinity of Earth and phenomena that could impact solar system exploration. RBSP instruments will measure the properties of charged particles that comprise the Earthís radiation belts, the plasma waves that interact with them, the large-scale electric fields that transport them, and the particle-guiding magnetic field. The two RBSP spacecraft will have nearly identical eccentric orbits. The orbits cover the entire radiation belt region and the two spacecraft lap each other several times over the course of the mission. The RBSP in situ measurements discriminate between spatial and temporal effects, and compare the effects of various proposed mechanisms for charged particle acceleration and loss. Space weather is the source of aurora that shimmer in the night sky, but it also can disrupt satellites, cause power grid failures and disrupt GPS communications. RBSP will help scientists to understand this region and to better design spacecraft that can survive the rigors of space. As the second mission in NASA's Living With a Star program, RBSP will take its place as part of a fleet of spacecraft that may someday help predict space weather before it even impacts Earth's environs. While earlier missions have sent back some information about the radiation belts, RBSP is the first to use two spacecraft in tandem. As they speed through the belts at some 2000 mph, the spacecraft will naturally pass through changing conditions. But a single moving spacecraft cannot discern whether any changes it observes are due to traveling disturbances, or if the spacecraft simply flew through two static, but differing, regions. Two spacecraft with identical instruments, however, can distinguish between these possibilities. Planned for launch August 30, 2012, the two RBSP spacecraft must operate in the harsh conditions they are studying. While other satellites have the luxury of turning off or protecting themselves in the middle of intense space weather, RBSP must continue to collect data. The probes have, therefore, been built to withstand the constant bombardment of particles and radiation they will experience in this intense area of space. The Van Allen Radiation Belts swell and shrink over time as part of a much larger space weather system driven by energy and material that erupt off the Sun's surface and fill the entire Solar System. Space weather is the source of aurora that shimmer in the night sky, but it also can disrupt satellites, cause power grid failures and disrupt GPS communications. RBSP will help scientists to understand this region and to better design spacecraft that can survive the rigors of outer space. The mission is to gain scientific understanding of how populations of relativistic electrons and ions in space form or change in response to changes in solar activity and the solar wind. The mission's general scientific objectives are to: * Discover which processes -- singly or in combination -- accelerate and transport the particles in the radiation belt, and under what conditions. * Understand and quantify the loss of electrons from the radiation belts. * Determine the balance between the processes that cause electron acceleration and those that cause losses. * Understand how the radiation belts change in the context of geomagnetic storms.
Spacecraft RBSP consists of two spin-stabilized spacecraft to be launched with a single Atlas V rocket. The two probes must operate in the harsh conditions they are studying; while other satellites have the luxury of turning off or protecting themselves in the middle of intense space weather, RBSP must continue to collect data. The probes have, therefore, been built to withstand the constant bombardment of particles and radiation they will experience in this intense area of space. Instruments Because it is vital that the two craft make identical measurements to observe changes in the radiation belts through both space and time, each probe will carry the following: * Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma (ECT) Instrument Suite; The Principal Investigator is Harlan Spence from University of New Hampshire. Key partners in this investigation are LANL, Southwest Research Institute, Aerospace Corporation and LASP * Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS); The Principal Investigator is Craig Kletzing from the University of Iowa. * Electric Field and Waves Instrument (EFW); The Principal Investigator is John Wygant from the University of Minnesota. Key partners in this investigation include the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder. * Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE); The Principal Investigator is Lou Lanzerotti from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Key partners include the Applied Physics Laboratory and Fundamental Technologies, LLC. * Relativistic Particle Spectrometer (RPS) from the National Reconnaissance Office