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Lancaster physicist invited to NASA launch

31 August 2012
Lancaster University physicist Dr Mick Denton was invited to the launch of the NASA Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

The two NASA satellites will be used to investigate energetic particles in the Van Allen radiation belt around Earth, which can damage orbiting spacecraft and pose a danger to astronauts.  Although the discovery of the radiation belts was first made in 1958 at the dawn of the space age, it is still not known what causes the radiation belts to swell and shrink - the RBSP mission is designed to answer this question.

Dr Denton, who is from the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science (SPEARS) group at the Department of Physics, said: "It was thrilling to be with members of the mission team during the countdown.  After three postponed launches, due to technical issues and Hurricane Isaac, everyone was very nervous.  Seeing a successful takeoff was a huge relief, and after a few days commissioning the instruments, the real science will begin".

Earlier, he gave an invited talk at the RBSP Science Working Group Meeting in Cocoa Beach in Florida, presenting work on the physics of plasmas which occupy the region of space around the Earth and discussing how radiation belt electrons are energised.

He holds a joint £400,000 NERC grant together with the British Antarctic Survey to perform supporting observations from Antarctica during the RBSP mission.

The aim of the project is to understand how particles from space affect the Earth’s atmosphere. The five year study will see two radio receivers installed in Antarctica as part of a global network of receivers set up by the AARDDVARK consortium of international universities from New Zealand to South Africa and Hungary.
Video NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) launched into the predawn skies on August 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; video courtesy of NASA. Image of satellites in space also courtesy of NASA.
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