July 18, 2012
In the Loop: “The Electric Atmosphere: Plasma Is Next NASA Science Target”
By Karen C. Fox - NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Two giant donuts of charged particles called the Van Allen Belts surround Earth. Credit: NASA/T. Benesch, J. Carns
Our day-to-day lives exist in what physicists would call an electrically neutral environment. Desks, books, chairs and bodies don't generally carry electricity and they don't stick to magnets. But life on Earth is substantially different from, well, almost everywhere else. Beyond Earth's protective atmosphere and extending all the way through interplanetary space, electrified particles dominate the scene. Indeed, 99% of the universe is made of this electrified gas, known as plasma.
Two giant donuts of this plasma surround Earth, trapped within a region known as the Van Allen radiation belts. The belts lie close to Earth, sandwiched between satellites in geostationary orbit above and satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are generally below the belts. A new NASA mission called the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), due to launch in August 2012, will improve our understanding of what makes plasma move in and out of these electrified belts wrapped around our planet.
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The Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., manages the mission and is building and will operate the RBSP spacecraft for NASA.
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