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News Story - British Antarctic Survey scientists involved in NASA 'space weather' mission

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Date: 30 Aug 2012

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the first twin-spacecraft mission designed to explore the Earth’s radiation belts, launched into the predawn skies on Thursday 30 August 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

As NASA’s UK Co-investigator the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is involved in the particle instrument part of the mission.

Professor Richard Horne or BAS said,

“The Earth’s radiation belts contain high energy charged particles that circulate around the Earth.  They are a danger to satellites and can damage electronic components.  During space weather events the number of trapped particles can change dramatically, by up to 100,000 fold over a period of a few hours.  The mission is designed to help us understand what causes the variations and how these charged particles are accelerated up to such high energies.”

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington said,

“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. 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 region 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.

Professor Horne said also,

“By using two satellites we can determine whether the particles are being transported inwards towards the planet, or outwards away from the planet.  Our collaboration with scientists at University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that very low frequency radio waves accelerate the particles to very high energies.  These waves are generated by natural processes in space, but they are also observed at BAS’s Halley Research Station in Antarctica.  We have suggested that if wave acceleration is dominant then the particles should be accelerated and then transported outwards away from the planet.

“BAS uses large computer codes to make forecasts of the Earth’s radiation belts to help protect satellites on orbit.  This is done via the EU FP7 SPACECAST project which BAS leads.  Data from RBSP will help us improve these forecasts so that satellite operators can take action to prevent satellite damage.”


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