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ASK OCE — August 31, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 13

 

Dr. James Van Allen, one of the most gifted and prolific astrophysicists of the past century, died on August 9, 2006, at the age of 91.

Dr. Van Allen is credited with the first major scientific discovery of the space age — the Earth-circling radiation belts that bear his name. Based on this discovery, he became a pioneer in magnetospheric physics, which grew in importance as spacecraft began exploring the planets.

Dr. Van Allen first discovered evidence of the high-intensity radiation belts surrounding the Earth on January 31, 1958, during the American Explorer 1 mission which was the first successful U.S. satellite launched into space. A Geiger counter he developed provided data indicating the existence of the belts. Dr. Van Allen also found further proof of the radiation bands from data gathered by instruments he designed for the Explorer 2 and Explorer 3 launches.

In a famous photo from the early space race, celebrating the success of the Explorer 1, success, Dr. Van Allen, rocket pioneer Dr. Wernher von Braun, and William H. Pickering, who directed the spacecraft development, are pictured triumphantly holding a model of the Explorer 1 high over their heads.

Also in 1958, Dr. Van Allen chaired of a group of scientists that recommended that a program should be undertaken to land a man on the moon by 1968. The group included von Braun and directors of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They recommended the swift creation of an independent national space establishment. Congress established NASA that same year with the National Space Act.

Dr. Van Allen also designed instruments for Pioneer 10 to conduct the first survey of Jupiter’s radiation belts in 1973. Pioneer 11 followed with observations of Saturn’s belts. He was also a member of the scientific team for the Galileo mission orbiting Jupiter.

During his career, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions. He also helped develop the first plans for an International Geophysical Year.

In 1994, Dr. Van Allen received the Kuiper Prize from the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society for his many contributions to the field of planetary science and his advocacy of space exploration.

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