What is the van Allen belt and how powerful is it?

Van Allen belts are known to be a region where higher radiations exist. This region exists at a distance of about 1,000 km to 6,000 km (600 to 3,700 miles) above the earth’s surface. But can astronauts pass through the van Allen belt? What is the van Allen belt? What creates the Van Allen belts? This article answers these questions and more.

What is the van Allen belt?

The Van Allen radiation belt is a region that has highly energetic charged particles, and the solar wind creates the majority of these charged particles. As these particles move around in space, a planet’s magnetic field often captures and holds them closer to its orbit.

Since the earth has a strong magnetic field, it captures the highly charged particles and surrounds itself with them. These charged particles also come with an impenetrable barrier that makes it impossible for highly energetic electrons to reach Earth’s surface.

Earth’s magnetosphere captured two of these radiation belts. However, scientists have discovered that aside from the two main belts, others belts are often created to last temporarily. These belts were named after scientist James Van Allen, who contributed to their discoveries.

What creates the van Allen belts?

The Van Allen belts have an inner and outer region. Scientists believe that what contributed to the creation of these regions is quite different. The outer Van Allen Belt contains billions of highly energetic particles from the sun.

The Earth’s magnetosphere traps this outer belt and keeps it intact around itself. On the other hand, the inner belt region is created from the activities between the cosmic rays and Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists are still hoping to understand more about the creation of Van Allen belts in the future.

How were Van Allen Belts discovered?

The Van Allen Belts have remained unknown to humans for centuries of studying the cosmos with advanced modern telescopes. However, the birth of the space race gave humanity new knowledge about the radiation shaped donut closer to our home planet.

As America competed with the Soviet Union in the space race in the mid-20th century, the need to launch satellites into space began to arise. Scientist James A. Van Allen was contracted to design instruments, including the Geiger counter of the first American Satellite named Explorer 1.

On 1 February 1958, the Explorer 1 was launched atop the Juno I (RS-29) rocket. The space rocket reached an orbital height of 1,454km. At this height, the spacecraft could study the radiating environment of space and return possible data to earth. James A. Van Allen and other scientists analyzed and interpreted the radiation data captured by Explorer 1.

Before the launch, scientists used ground-based instruments to analyze space radiations within the solar system. However, Explore 1 enabled them to understand more about the radiation belt around earth clearly. These radiating belts were later named after James Van Allen, who led the team of scientists to make the discovery.

Is there any Mission to Study the Van Allen Belt?

After Van Allen and his team discovered the Van Allen radiation belt in 1958, many scientists became interested in studying this belt region. However, no space mission was explicitly sent to study this region in the 20th century.

As we embraced the 21 century, NASA began to see reasons to study the Van Allen Belts. In 2012, NASA officially launched two Van Allen Probes (VAP) to study the region and improve our knowledge about its existence. The space agency launched these two robotic spacecraft as part of the Living with a Star Program. The primary goal of this mission is to study how the radiation belt changes in intensity, shape, and size.

The twin probes were also designed to determine how particles move around the belts and how they accelerate at high speeds and energy levels. These probes lasted more than scientists actually expected, and they made several discoveries, including a display of data about the inner region of the outer radiation belt.

From this mission, scientists learned that the radiation belts help in creating an impenetrable barrier for electrons. The Van Allen Probes entered their final stage of studying the radiation belt region in 2019. Scientists hope to learn more about the Van Allen radiation belt before these twin space probes finally run out of fuel.

Can astronauts pass through the Van Allen belt?

Absolutely Yes. Astronauts successfully passed the Van Allen belts during the Apollo moon landing missions in the 20th century. Keep in mind that the Van Allen belts lie at an altitude of about 1,000 km to 6,000 km (600 to 3,700 miles) above the earth’s surface.

The moon lies at an average distance of 249,000 miles from Earth. Hence, astronauts can surface in this belt region and reach their destination. Remember that the Van Allen belts were first discovered in 1958. So scientists were fully aware of its impact before commencing on the crewed mission beyond low earth orbit.

In fact, the Apollo space capsule that sent humans to the moon was designed to protect astronauts against space radiation and the devastating impact of Van Allen belts. Future space missions beyond low earth orbit will give astronauts more protection as they cross the Van Allen Belt.

Why is this region important?

The Van Allen Belt is a region with high radiation trapped in the earth’s magnetosphere. Despite being created by the sun, the Van Allen belt protects the earth and makes it nearly impossible for highly energetic electrons to penetrate through it. We can comfortably say that Van Allen belts help in trapping solar winds and deflecting energetic particles that can damage our atmosphere. Hence, our atmosphere is highly protected by these radiation belts.

Conclusion

Van Allen Belts plays a vital role in protecting our atmosphere from destruction. Learning about their existence has helped us in designing highly sophisticated spacecraft to explore the stars and look deeper into the Cosmos. So when are we crossing the Van Allen Belt region again?

As NASA prepares for the Artemis Space Mission, astronauts will cross these radiation belts for the first time in the 21st century. What do you think about the Van Allen Belt?

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