space probe

A cutaway model of the radiation belts with the 2 Van Allen probes flying through them. The radiation belts are two donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

The Van Allen Probes mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star Geospace program to explore fundamental processes that operate throughout the solar system, in particular those that generate hazardous space weather effects near the Earth and phenomena that could affect solar system exploration.

The Van Allen Probes will help us understand the sun’s influence on the Earth and near-Earth space by studying the planet’s radiation belts on various scales of space and time.

The radiation belts are two donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. This radiation is a kind of “weather” in space. It can affect the performance and reliability of our technologies, and pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. The inner belt extends from about 1000 to 8000 miles above Earth’s equator. The outer belt extends from about 12,000 to 25,000 miles.
What’s the problem?

  • Ask – There is a lot of interest in space “weather” but the only way to study it in detail is to send a probe into space. The probes have on-board sensors to detect and record information about the conditions the probes encounter. What information would be helpful to researchers studying space weather? How can that data be collected? How can it be stored and transmitted back to earth?
  • Imagine – Can some of the existing satellite technologies be used for the Van Allen probes? What is new to this mission? How much data will be needed?
  • Design, Build – Once the exact requirements for the probes has been determined, what special parts must be created? What data recording devices are included?
  • Improve – The probes’ programming can be changed and update by sending the new information to the probes as they orbit the earth.

That’s engineering

  • watt is the rate a source of energy uses or produces one joule during one second. The more watts, the more energy used per second.
  • radiation – when energy moves through space away from a source of radiation. There are two broad classes of radiation: ionizing radiation which comes from radioactive materials and x-ray machines and non-ionizing radiation (usually electromagnetic radiation) which comes from other sources.
    • ionizing radiation – carries a large energy in each particle, can change things that it hits, hurting people or animals or causing chemical changes.
    • non-ionizing radiation – does not cause microscopic damage, but some types can cause chemical changes or make things hotter.

Engineering ideas

  • magnetic field, motion, radiation, exposure, area, watts

Do It
Challenges for you to work on…

  • Navigating in a magnetic field – model spacecraft motion and the local magnetic field direction
  • Radiation dose – study radiation dose units and estimate the exposures for a human living on the ground, an astronaut in the ISS, and the Van Allen belt environment.
  • Electricity from sunlight – work with a scaled drawing of the Van Allen Probes spacecraft to determine the area of its solar panels and how many watts of electricity they can produce.

Learn more…

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