Two tough, resilient, NASA spacecraft have been orbiting Earth for the past six and a half years, flying repeatedly through a hazardous zone of charged particles around our planet called the Van Allen radiation belts. The twin Van Allen Probes, launched in August 2012, have confirmed scientific theories and revealed new structures and processes at work in these dynamic regions. Now, they're starting a new and final phase in their exploration.
On Feb. 12, 2019, one of the twin Van Allen Probes begins a series of orbit descent maneuvers to bring its lowest point of orbit, called perigee, just under 190 miles closer to Earth. This will bring the perigee from about 375 miles to about 190 miles—a change that will position the spacecraft for an eventual re-entry into Earth's atmosphere about 15 years down the line.
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"In order for the Van Allen Probes to have a controlled re-entry within a reasonable amount of time, we need to lower the perigee," said Nelli Mosavi, project manager for the Van Allen Probes at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, or APL, in Laurel, Maryland. "At the new altitude, aerodynamic drag will bring down the satellites and eventually burn them up in the upper atmosphere. Our mission is to obtain great science data, and also to ensure that we prevent more space debris so the next generations have the opportunity to explore the space as well."
The other of the two Van Allen Probes will follow suit in March, also commanded by the mission operations team at APL, which designed and built the satellites.
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The Van Allen Probes spend most of their orbit within Earth's radiation belts: doughnut-shaped bands of energized particles—protons and electrons—trapped in Earth's magnetic field. These fast-moving particles create radiation that can interfere with satellite electronics and could even pose a threat to...
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