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Storm Probes

December 20, 2012

[SFX: RBSP solar sounds]

Although it sounds like a strange aviary, this is really the sound of particles from the Sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. It was recorded by a pair of spacecraft launched earlier this year.

Together, the craft are known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probe. They’re designed to study a region around Earth that most spacecraft try to avoid: the Van Allen radiation belts.

The belts are wide zones where Earth’s magnetic field traps electrically charged particles from the Sun.

Long exposure to the belts can damage or knock out satellites and endanger the health of astronauts who travel to the Moon or beyond. Crews aboard the International Space Station are safe because they’re generally below the belts.

But when Earth is pelted by especially strong storms on the Sun, the belts can change. In particular, the outer belt can become much stronger, and expand farther into space. At times, it can envelop communication satellites in high orbits.

The new probes use special electronics and heavy shielding to protect them from the radiation. That’ll allow them to loop through the Van Allen belts for two years or longer. Scientists will use their observations to learn how the belts change during solar storms. That could provide new tools to help forecast the effects of the storms on Earth’s own space environment — offering extra protection against stormy skies.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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