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James Van Allen – Space Pioneer

by Kathy Chambers on Fri, June 10, 2016

James Van Allen holding (Loki) instrumented Rockoon


James Van Allen’s space instrumentation innovations and his advocacy for Earth satellite planetary missions ensured his place among the early leaders of space exploration. After World War II, Van Allen begin his atmospheric research at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory. He went on to become the Regent Distinguished Professor and head of the University of Iowa (UI) Department of Physics and Astronomy. Drawing on his many talents, Van Allen made tremendous contributions to the field of planetary science throughout his career.

Van Allen used V-2 and Aerobee rockets to conduct high-altitude experiments, but the lift was limited. He devised a ‘rockoon,’ a rocket lifted by hot air balloons into the upper atmosphere where it was separated from the balloons and ignited to conduct cosmic-ray experiments. The rockoon, shown with Van Allen in the image above, achieved a higher altitude at a lower cost than ground-launched rockets. This research helped determine that energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere are a prime driver of auroras.

Van Allen successfully advocated the use of U.S. satellites for cosmic-ray investigations. The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, and subsequent satellites carried his UI-built instruments that included tiny Geiger counters to measure radiation. Van Allen discovered intense bands of radiation that surround the Earth using these technologies. The Van Allen radiation belts, named after him following their discovery, led to new research fields of magnetospheric physics and space plasma physics. He went on to survey Jupiter’s and Saturn’s radiation belts as well. Many of Van Allen’s early DOE technical report citations are available in SciTech Connect, the primary repository for DOE science, technology, and engineering research information.

Today, NASA’s Van Allen Probes Mission is under way studying radiation belts via two spacecraft in tandem and may someday help predict space weather before it reaches earth. DOE researchers at the national laboratories are participating in this mission and continue to develop technology for space exploration, from space power systems to gamma ray detectors, in support of dozens of missions to space by NASA and other federal agencies. Associated research papers are showcased in this month’s DOE Science Showcase on Space Technology. Dr. William Watson has authored a related white paper “In the OSTI Collections: The Space Environment and Space Technology.”

Other Related Topics: James Van Allen, space technology
Page last updated on 2017-09-19 11:30

About the Author

Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.