It has been well over a dozen years since the concept of exploring space weather was first conceived by space agency NASA. Now, this challenging idea is all set to turn into reality when the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Florida in the pre-dawn hours of August 24.
The Earth and Near-Earth space are influenced by the Sun. So much so that "when the Sun sneezes, the Earth catches a cold," according to Nicky Fox, deputy project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Radiation Belt Storm Probes, or RBSP, will focus on the Earth's radiation belts known as Van Allen radiation belts, named after University of Iowa astrophysicist James Van Allen.
In the Van Allen belts, energetic electrons and ions are held in place by magnetic fields. Since these belts behave and react to changes in the Sun, they are an area of intense space weather, posing serious hazards to astronauts and spacecraft.
But guess what?
The RBSP probes will fly and operate in the harsh environment of our planet's radiation belts - observing changes in the radiation belts through both space and time. The duration of this unmanned mission is 2 years, during which the two spacecraft will measure the particles, magnetic and electric fields, and waves of the radiation belts.
Fluctuations in space weather expose pilots and passengers during polar aircraft flights to higher levels of radiation. Changes in space weather can also disable satellites, cause power grid failures, and disrupt the Global Positioning System, television and telecommunications signals.
Solar events such as solar flares or solar storms due to giant eruptions of solar material called coronal mass ejections have considerable influence on the space weather. The coronal mass ejections release billions of tons of electrically charged particles to the Earth that can hit like a cosmic tsunami, and affect communication and navigation systems, knock out power grids, and endanger the lives of astronauts working in near-Earth space.
According to scientists, the solar activity is expected to peak in 2013, which can cause significant damages to society's high-tech infrastructure. Therefore, understanding the science of space weather will help scientists improve space weather forecasts, which in turn will lead to better management and protection of our technological infrastructure.
by RTT Staff Writer
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