Humans like to go where we cannot. It is the odd person growing up in the contemporary culture without a bit of contrarianism on some level. It is stronger in some more than others but it is usually there. Though some may like to think so, this applied at least equally to scientists, if not more so “that is impossible!” having been the catalyst for some of the greatest discoveries in history, “just watch me” apparently having been a key mantra of the classical scientific method.
One of the biggest presumptive “no go” zones was space, despite folks hopping about on the moon prior to the notion of commercially available home computers. That’s all well and good but the moon is in Earth’s own neighborhood cosmologically speaking, which was a large part of the reason we were able to pop in for a visit. But, simple distance did not stop our intrepid species, nor did the lack of breathable air or on-board air-supply limitations, no sir! We had rovers up on Mars zipping about like remote controlled cars, taking pictures of everything they saw. The Horsehead Nebula too far to get human photographers? No problem, send in Hubble to snap some shots and beam them on back. It seemed that there was nothing we could not do.
That is until things started melting. Turns out that some corners of the Big Black are pretty darn radioactive which does not make for the most welcoming environment for humans, computers or anything else really. One of the trendiest spots mostly due to its exclusivity has been the Van Allen belts. However, just this last Tuesday the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announced it has successfully launched its The Exploration of Energization and Radiation in Geospace satellite (ERG) into Earth’s orbit; this essentially means they put a satellite in the Van Allen belts.
What is going on?
Bands of radiation just chock full of charged particles, thought to originate with the sun that got caught in Earths magnetic field, and now just turn around the thing like infinite merry-go-rounds. These are known as the Van Allen Belts. They cannot be avoided reliably with the sorts of rockets currently used if one wants to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. There are some cases in which some parts of some of the belts get much closer than the others, such as a point in the South Atlantic known in legend, song and astronomical charts as the South Atlantic Anomaly. The ERG is designed specifically to withstand much of the radiation from the belts and will be able to get closer to more of them than ever before and hopefully help researchers understand them better.
Why is the satellite in Van Allen belt important?
If you are happy with your feet on the ground – nothing. If however one wanted to take a trip outside the Earth’s atmosphere, you know, just for a change, there is a very big problem indeed. The radiation from the belts can get so strong they have been know to make some of the most sophisticated computer systems yet devised fizzle and die like a laptop that has had coffee spilt on it. It is also not know what even short term exposure to such radiation might do to any humans involved. It is possible they might turn into a real-life Fantastic Four but the chances are slim.