If you check out the NASA.gov page and look to the missions page chances are you will be surprised. Even if you are a NASA aficionado, the sheer number of the on-going or planned or even recently ended missions is amazing.
Sure there are the oddities and mysteries of the Universe which NASA seeks to find the answer to. Dark Matter, Black Holes, Earth-like planets, what happened to Mars, Europa – what lay beneath the ice….and so on.
The amazing truth is that if the nuclear force that holds all atomic nuclei together were perhaps a bit stronger stars like the Sun would exhaust their Hydrogen fuel in second’s flat meaning the Sun would have exploded long ago and life on Earth would be non-existent. Or another possibility, gravity is a slightly weaker force, the core of the Sun never is able to sufficiently ignite the nuclear reactions that then create sunlight, and of course, the Sun would have burned its fuel billions of years ago. You guessed it, again we don’t exist.
NASA thinks about these possibilities and investigates other planets, how gravity works, proves some of Einstein’s theories, plans on making water on the Moon & Oxygen on Mars and so much more. So when looking over the many missions one was chosen to bring to light in order to best show this truth; the Van Allen Probes. A mission that explains that NASA is always and has always been looking forward to Universe and the mysteries that it holds.
The Van Allen Probes, once known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP – there is always a good anagram!) were launched in August of 2012 and had a mission of studying the Van Allen Belts that surround the Earth. Two concentric and donut shaped circles filled with high energy particles that sometimes shoot down into Earth’s atmosphere or go the other direction into space; they shrink or grow over time and help to form part of the space weather system that is driven by the energy of the Sun, at least in this part of the galaxy.
The probes consisting of two separate spin-stabilized spacecraft, were launched into space atop a single Atlas V rocket. They face the harshest conditions to study those very same conditions. Not only must they withstand the constant bombardment of particles and radiation, they must do it while operating fully and collecting data.
The mission both past and present has scientific objectives of discovering the processes that accelerate & transport the particles in the radiation belt, understand & quantify the loss of electrons from the radiation belts, understand the changes that occur during a geomagnetic storm (*a third belt was formed temporarily in response to a solar flare) AND determine the balance between those processes that cause electron acceleration and those that cause their loss.
(Pictured below is the flare that resulted in a temporary 3rd belt)
Yes there have been other probes and missions to the Van Allen belts but this mission is the first that utilized two spacecraft in tandem allowing one to check another’s results making sure that changes in various regions are not due to the travel disturbances and making sure the probes don’t end up with NASA asking more questions than are answered as a result of this mission.
NASA is discovering things at the edges of our galaxy and everywhere in between as well as using its telescopes to learn more about the Suns origin, its siblings, planets that are Earth-like and so much more.
One important thing to understand is that we don’t understand it all. NASA is constantly adjusting concepts, proving theories and questioning what are the truths the Universe holds.
One other important detail. The trip to Mars involves Astronauts facing the cosmic radiation of space in ways never before faced. Every little thing NASA gains understanding of helps with something else.
The concept once considered so ‘hippie-like’, so new age – that everything is connected, is true. These probes will help NASA in making equipment of suit adjustments that protect from radiation, help in the separate research on the shields for spacecraft and for individual suits, but also in prediction models of space weather….NASA is learning about the Universe, and that learning begins here on Earth.