In the News
References to the van Allen Radiation Belts have appeared many times in the news. This is mainly because people are intrigued by the idea that Earth is surrounded by what many think is a lethal zone of radiation that can kill astronauts instantly, or cause major problems for Earth in other ways.

Of course, all of this is wrong and leads to many people being overly worried about something that is rather inconsequential. Apollo astronauts passed through these radiation belts many times enroute to the Moon with no ill effects. It is certainly true that prolonged exposure (days to weeks) to the particles in these belts can cause radiation damage in both humans and satellite equipment. That's why the International Space Station and Space Shuttle trips stay well below the inner edge to these belts.

So here is a collection of articles and significant historical events that have appeared in the newspapers and other literature about the van Allen belts, plus a short comment about what the scientific perspective is about each story.

1958 - First discovery of the van Allen Belts by James Van Allen using the Explorer I satellite. This is often referred to as an accidental discovery because van Allen's experiment was designed to study the mysterious origins of cosmic rays, but his Geiger counter on the satellite also detected the energetic electrons and protons in the Belts too. This led to the comment "Space is radioactive!" which he was overheard to say at the time of the discovery.

1962 - July - "Starfish" hydrogen bomb blast in space creates a temporary van Allen Belt filled with million-Volt electrons. The electrons went on to damage the solar arrays of satellites and caused three of them to fail soon afterwards.

1968 - December 21 - First humans (Borman, Lovell and Anders in Apollo 8) to pass near the van Allen Belts on the way to the Moon. Total radiation dosage during their 30-minute trip near the belts was about 1/3 the dosage received by ISS and MIR astronauts after 3 months. The Apollo trajectories grazed the outer edge of the Belt system and never actually went inside.

1969 - May 18 - Apollo 10 astronauts travel near van Allen Belts enroute to the Moon.

1969 - July 16 - Apollo 11 astronauts travel near the belts and land on Moon.

1969 - November 14, Apollo 12 astronauts pass near the belts enroute to the Moon.

1970 - April 11, Apollo 13 astronauts travel near the van Allen Belts.

1971 - January 31 - Apollo 14 astronauts travel near the van Allen Belts.

1971 - August 7 - Apollo 15 astronauts travel near the van Allen Belts.

1972 - April 16 - Apollo 16 astronauts travel near the van Allen Belts.

1972 - December 7 - Apollo 17 astronauts travel near the van Allen Belts. These are the last humans to have actually made this journey since the end of the manned space program to orbits above 700 miles.

1991 - March 24 - A new radiation belt was discovered by the CRESS satellite and was observed to form in the "slot region" located between the inner and outer van Allen Belts (2.2 Re) caused by a fast solar storm whose shock wave had recently impacted Earth.

1998 - May 19 - The Galaxy IV "pager" satellite may have been seriously damaged by the formation of a temporary belt of high-energy electrons in the outer van Allen Belt due to a powerful solar storm. Using a wide array of data sets, scientists analyzed the space environment for the times in question and found evidence of highly disturbed solar, solar wind, and geomagnetic conditions in late April and early May. The combination of coronal mass ejections, solar flares, and high speed solar wind streams led to a powerful sequence of interplanetary disturbances that hit the Earth. These disturbances produced a deep, powerful, and long-lasting enhancement of the electron population throughout the outer Van Allen radiation zone.

2002 - A company called Teathers Unlimited proposes a clever way to remove the radiation belts. In the HiVOLT system, a long -- nominally some 62 miles (100 kilometers) long conducting, uninsulated tether would be deployed from a satellite in an equatorial, slightly elliptical orbit. A power supply on the satellite would then be used to charge up the tether to a large voltage relative to the space environment. This voltage would create a region of strong electric field near the tether. Radiation belt particles randomly encountering the tether have their pitch angle increased or decreased. As a net result, there are particles that leave the belt immediately. They decay into the Earth's upper atmosphere.

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