Rice University assists with NASA storm probes mission
Anthony Chan, a professor at Rice University, is assisting in a project that may help predict space weather. If successful, the project could make life more comfortable for both the people and satellites sent into space, as well as provide valuable research for those who remain planet-bound. The project involves two Radiation Belt Storm Probes scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 23. The probes will monitor space weather, including eddies of particles that flow through what was once thought of as a void, the sun's plasma blasts that endanger astronauts, orbiting electronics and the power distribution grid on Earth's surface. The probes will take elongated orbits into the Van Allen Belts, doughnut-shaped regions of high-energy particles that circle Earth. The NASA spacecraft will travel through constantly changing magnetic fields that trap the high-energy particles and keep the majority of the harsh radiation of the sun at bay. During their journey they will gather data on events from different perspectives to give researchers a clearer picture of how solar storms affect the belts. "These two spacecraft have an unprecedented number of instruments, spanning fields and particles over exceptionally wide ranges," said Chan in a press release. The Rice professor of physics and astronomy is part of the Energetic Particle, Composition and Thermal Plasma Suite, which operates one of the instrument sets. "We think we're finally going to be able to answer some basic questions about the physics of the Van Allen Belts, questions that have been around for over 50 years." "There's a very strong theory and simulation group at Rice in space plasma physics," Chan said in the release. "The most famous space physics model developed here, the Rice Convection Model, operates in a similar region of space to the Van Allan Belts, but with generally lower-energy particles." Chan's part in the project will be to use data from the probes to verify and refine his group's theories and simulations. "We want to understand the dynamic variability of the outer belt and eventually be able to predict it to the point where it could be useful for spacecraft operators and designers," he said. "That is one of the practical consequences of this research." Satellites will allow researchers to gather accurate data from energetic events in the Van Allen Belts. They will sweep within 400 miles of Earth and out through the belts, which range from 8,000 to 40,000 miles. Chan said he hopes the probes' sophisticated instruments will lead to some surprises. "Because electrons are all identical, it's hard to know where they're coming from. Nevertheless, we think the majority of them are coming from the sun," he said in the release. "The most interesting results scientists get are the ones we don't expect," Chan continued. "We design the missions looking for certain things and try to allow enough data collection in regions that haven't been explored enough to look for something new. And you always hope you'll find something new."
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