James Van Allen’s contributions to astronomy or space science are probably best summarized by a statement of NASA administrator Michael Griffin, following Van Allen’s death in 2006. The statement reads: “James Van Allen was one of the greatest and most accomplished American space scientists of our time, and few researchers had such a wide range of expertise in so many scientific disciplines. NASA’s path of space exploration is far more advanced today because of Dr. Van Allen’s groundbreaking work”.
Another measure of Van Allen’s prominence in the exploration of space is his discovery that the earth is surrounded by a radiation belt, now known as the Van Allen Belt, named after Van Allen. For the first American satellite, Explorer I, successfully launched by NASA, Van Allen proposed a cosmic-ray experiment with a Geiger detector, designed by him. NASA agreed, and the subsequent data, returned from this and future satellites, revealed that Earth is surrounded by a radiation belt. This discovery initiated magneto-spheric physics research, and Van Allen became instantly famous. As a result of his fame, his picture appeared on the cover of “Time Magazine” in May, 1959.
Van Allen’s scientific preparation went back to his undergraduate school days at Iowa’s Wesleyan College, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Under the guidance of his physics professor, Thomas Poulter, Van Allen participated in experiments tracking meteors, conducting magnetic surveys of Mount Pleasant, and measuring cosmic rays at ground level. He was awarded his Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in 1935. Van Allen then entered the University of Iowa, and earned his master’s degree in solid state physics, in 1936. Three years later, in 1939, he earned his Ph. D. degree in solid state physics, also from the University of Iowa.
Following his doctoral studies, Van Allen became active in space research, first in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D. C., and later at the Applied Physics Laboratory, of Johns Hopkins University. While at Hopkins, he became involved with the use of German V-2 rockets, as early as 1946. It was quickly discovered that the V-2 rocket was too heavy and too complex for the space research task. What was needed was a smaller, lighter, and more efficient rocket. He was able to have a two stage rocket constructed, based on the Aerojet WAC Corporal, and the Bumblebee missile, developed under a U. S. Navy program. The Bumblebee missile was the second stage, and the combination of the two, was named the “Aerobee”. To launch the Aerobee required a 53 meter tall launching tower, in order to provide the rocket stability during the initial part of its launch. Four launch towers were built at four locations including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, at Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, at Wallops Island, and on board the research vessel USN Norton Sound. The Aerobee could carry a 68 kilogram payload to an altitude of 130 kilometers.
In 1949, Van Allen, together with two fellow scientists, probably under budget pressure, came up with the idea to develop a small but efficient rocket, which could be launched from a high altitude balloon. The idea came into being, and the “Rockoon” was born. The Rockoon was launched from a balloon, at an altitude of 16000 meters, and was able to reach similar altitudes as the much more expensive Aerobees. In 1953, data gathered through the Rockoon method, was able to detect the first hint of radiation belts surrounding the earth. The actual existence of the radiation belts was confirmed with the Explorer I as described above.
In April 1950, the first organizing meeting of the “International Geophysical Year” was held by a group of international space scientists. The meeting was held in Van Allen’s home in the Washington, D.C. area. In 1957-1958, the First International Geophysical Year was scheduled and held. It generated governmental interests, by both the U.S. government, and the Soviet Government, and it apparently caused the Russians to rush work on the development of their first orbital launch of Sputnik.
At the end of 1958, NASA launched Pioneer 3, a lunar probe launched from the Atlantic Missile Range, by a Juno II rocket. Its primary purpose was to place a 13 pound scientific payload in the vicinity of the moon. The goal to reach the moon failed, but the probe reached an altitude of 63,000 miles, and was able to reveal a second radiation belt, a much larger one, than the one initially found. The early and later discovered radiation belts are referred to as, the Van Allan radiation belts.
In 1960, Van Allen returned to the University of Iowa as a professor of physics. He continued to do research with experiments flown into space, by the Pioneer Program, the Mariner Program, and the Galileo program. His experiments were on voyages to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. His research contributed to the knowledge of energetic particles, plasmas and radio waves, throughout the solar system.
For his work during his space science career, many awards have been bestowed on Van Allen, including:
Distinguished Fellow, Iowa Academy of Sciences, 1975,
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1978,
National Medal of Sciences, 1987,
Crafoord Prize, 1989,
Vannevar Bush Award, 1991,
NASA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994, and
National Air and Space Museum Trophy, 2006.
James Van Allen was born on September 7, 1914. He retired from the University of Iowa in 1985, but continued to serve as the Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus. He passed away on August 9, 2006.
James Van Allen, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Van_Allen
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