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Spacecraft to study radiation around Earth

Aug. 18, 2012 at 1:22 PM   |   Comments

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug. 18 (UPI) -- Two U.S. spacecraft will go on a mission to study how radioactive particles in so-called space weather affect Earth's satellites and technology, NASA said.

The spacecraft will blast off Thursday for the treacherous Van Allen radiation belts -- rings of radioactive particles encircling Earth -- where the spacecraft will capture particles expelled from the sun and thrown toward Earth in solar storms, The Washington Post reported Friday.

"We are trying to go to a place that everyone else tries to avoid," said Rick Fitzgerald, project manager of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University.

The spacecraft are scheduled to launch in tandem from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and fly for two years, crossing the belts in their entirety.

The spacecrafts represent "the most rugged and best-instrumented mission ever flown to measure radiation," Fitzgerald said.

The spacecraft, measuring about 6 feet across, 3 feet tall and weighing 1,475 pounds each, are protected by a thick aluminum coating, the Post said. Each probe has five instruments to measure radioactive particles as the spacecraft traverse the belts and solar radiation storms.

The data will help scientists construct models to explain how different solar disturbances could change belts' size and shape, project scientist Barry Mauk said. The models could become predictive tools allowing scientists to speculate how the belts will behave before a solar storm is in Earth's range and affect communications technology.

"There are a lot of technologies that fly in and out of these belts that we don't know about or take for granted," Fitzgerald said. "[Only] when the belts cause problems do people want to know more about them."

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