James van Allen and the Weather in Space

James Van Allen (1914-2006) in the middle with Wernher von Braun (right)

James Van Allen (1914-2006) in the middle with Wernher von Braun (right)

On September 7, 1914, astrophysicist and space pioneer Dr. James Van Allen was born. The Van Allen radiation belts were named after him, following the 1958 satellite missions (Explorer 1 and Explorer 3) in which Van Allen had argued that a Geiger counter should be used to detect charged particles.

“Apparently, something happens on the sun. It sends out a burst of gases. The reservoirs above our earth shake like a bowl of jelly. The radiation droozles out at the ends and makes the auroral displays at the North and South Poles.”
(James Van Allen, in 1959)

Who would have guessed, that a boy from the little town Mount Pleasant, Iowa would become a man of such great discoveries and would be designated to change history for presumably starting the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the USA in his living room.

Van Allen spent all his childhood and educational years in Iowa, he began his science studies at Iowa Wesleyan College and ended with his Ph. D in nuclear physics at the University of Iowa in 1939. He then left the Mid-West for Washington D.C. where the talented scientist first discovered his great interest for cosmic rays. After serving for the Navy, van Allen began experimenting with the German A4 rockets at the age of 32, and could achieve great advancements in the field of high altitude research on rockets.[6] This continued with the development of the Aerobee rocket that was much smaller and cheaper than an A4. Already here he attached importance to the possibility of transporting payloads such as measuring instruments.

One of the most important years in the life of van Allen might have been 1950, when he gathered the most promising scientists in his living room, leading to the International Geophysical Year, which took place in 1957/58 and causing the American government to building satellites and the Soviet Union to answering with shooting the Sputniks into the orbit; the Space Race has begun.[7]

In 1951 he was appointed to the University of Iowa as Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. However, James van Allen was still researching on his Rockoon-project, which he had started in 1949, and only four years later, he was able to succeed for the first time. After being fired off Newfoundland, the so called ‘Rockoons‘ (as a combination of rockets and balloons) were able to detect the first hints of radiation belts. The success continued in 1957, when 36 Rockoons were launched. The real break through followed one year later though. Explorer 1 was launched to orbit the Earth, carrying a cosmic ray experiment designed by van Allen himself. After Explorer 3 was also successfully lauched, everything van Allen has worked for now paid off. He could finally prove the existence of layers of energetic charged particles around our planet, held in place by Earth‘s magnetic field, which were named the ‘Van Allen radiation belt‘ to honor his achievements.

In the same year, in response to the so-called Sputnik shock, a planning team chaired by Van Allen was set up with the aim of carrying out a manned space flight to the moon within ten years. Later he moved away from this idea again, as he now regarded manned space travel more as a television event of no scientific value. Instead, he pushed ahead with data collection and exploration of the solar system. His measuring instruments in the Pioneer 10 spacecraft carried out the first investigation of Jupiter’s radiation belt in 1973. Pioneer 11 followed with observations of Saturn’s ring. [8]Van Allen was also a member of the scientific team on the Galileo mission, which began exploring Jupiter in 1989.[9]

Up to this date, James van Allen counts as a key figure in the Space Race and has been honored several times, he is holder of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, NASA‘s Lifetime Achievement Award and many more.

James Van Alled died on August 9, 2006, at age 91 in Iowa City.

At yovisto academic video search you can watch a video about recent NASA radiation belt storm probe mission to discover the secrets of space weather and the Van Allen radiation belts.

References and Further Reading:

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