Executive Intelligence Review


Explorer 1 Satellite Opened the Age of Space Science, 60 Years Ago

Feb. 1, 2018 (EIRNS)—When the Explorer 1 satellite lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 31, 1958, to the American public (and its politicians) the United States had regained its self-confidence, a month after witnessing the spectacular explosion of the Vanguard rocket. But to the scientific community, the Explorer 1 satellite, with the instruments aboard to reveal the characteristics of the near-Earth space environment, would open the age of space science.

Renowned physicist James Van Allen led a team at the University of Iowa, which developed the instruments to detect cosmic rays, the high-energy particles originating beyond the Solar System. But the Geiger counter detected levels of radiation that far exceeded what would be expected from cosmic rays alone. Explorer 1 had discovered two concentric rings of high-energy particles circling the Earth, originating from the Sun. They were later named the Van Allen Belts for their discoverer.

On the 60th anniversary of the Explorer 1 launch, the National Academy of Science held a symposium, to review past and current studies of the physics of Van Allen’s radiation belts, and future directions for research. Following a review of the historic discovery, which NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen described as “a new part of nature that was something beautiful,” there was a presentation of the less-known Soviet research in radiation belt physics. As the Russian scientist who was scheduled to give a presentation was not granted a visa, the Soviet and Russian space physics programs were reviewed by a Russian-born NASA scientist.

The most exciting scientific presentations were made by three younger women, covering current missions and future frontiers in radiation belt research. As many questions remain unanswered, in 2012, NASA launched the twin Van Allen probes, to study the behavior of particles in the belts. One of its discoveries, for which there is not yet an explanation, is the existence of a third belt, which is transitory.

Other nations are also participating in what was a described as a “geospace observatory fleet” of orbiters, to advance the study of the interaction of the Sun with the Earth.