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James A. Van Allen - Dies at 91 94

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the ironically-wore-suspenders dept.
Diamonddavej writes "The New York Times reports that the respected astrophysicist, James A. Van Allen, died yesterday at the age of 91. Apparently the fellow regularly worked at his office/laboratory up until a month ago. Prof. Van Allen team designed the Geiger counter that flew aboard Americas first orbiting satellite, Explorer 1. It detected unexpectedly intense levels of radiation caused by energetic particles trapped in the Earth magnetic field, the magnetosphere. The belts of radiation were mapped and characterised by later missions and were named the Van Allen belts in honour of their discoverer."
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James A. Van Allen - Dies at 91

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  • Man-Made Equivalent (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:08PM (#15884097) Journal
    One of the most interesting things about the Van Allen belts is the man made equivalent that remained from nuclear tests in the atmosphere. As the Wikipedia article references, that's what was done in Starfish Prime [wikipedia.org]:
    While some of the energetic beta particles had followed of the earth's magnetic field and illuminated the sky, other high-energy electrons became trapped in man-made radiation belts around the earth. There was much uncertainty and debate about the composition, magnitude, and potential adverse effects from this trapped radiation after the detonation. The weaponeers became quite worried when three satellites in low earth orbit were disabled. These man-made radiation belts eventually crippled one-third of all satellites in low orbit. Seven satellites were destroyed as radiation knocked out their solar arrays or electronics, including the first commercial communication satellite ever, Telstar.
    The full declassified documentation can be found here (PDF warning) [dtic.mil] and it's effects are listed here [blogspot.com]. If you want the summation of that report, we basically learned that "Strong electromagnetic signals were observed from the burst, as were significant magnetic field disturbances and earth currents."

    Does setting off an atomic bomb in the atmosphere of your home planet sound like a bad idea to you? Sounds more like the threat of a Bond villain than an action of the United States government. I'm not sure what the motive was for these tests does anyone who knows Van Allen's research have an answer?
    • by Farmer Tim (530755) <roundfile&mindless,com> on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:40PM (#15884346) Journal
      Sounds more like the threat of a Bond villain than an action of the United States government.

      An increasingly difficult distinction to make...
    • I am not an expert, but I was pretty enamored with the Starfish Prime wikipedia article a few months ago, and I remember thinking the same thing.

      While it may have had a specific purpose, I think the main impetus was "lets see what happens" with specific questions/benefits of:
      -How close to the blast do we(the mil) have to get for the EMP to be an effective weapon
      -How big/how many bombs would we need to charge the atmosphere and fry satellites, and conversely how much do we have to harden our sats?
      -Lets
    • Does setting off an atomic bomb in the atmosphere of your home planet sound like a bad idea to you?

      Of course it does, now. Hindsight is 20/20. I don't fault them for doing what was necessary to find out that it's a really bad idea.

      If you're suggesting that we should not test new things for fear of unknown environmental impact, then I have a bearskin parka and a cave for you right over there.

    • Sounds more like the threat of a Bond villain than an action of the United States government.

      Keep in mind, that it was not just the US that was setting off nukes in the open atmosphere. USSR, China (IIRC Britain and France), and now a number of new countries have done so (and I suspect that a few more to come; just not on their soil). No doubt we set off quite a few, but it was about the same number as the USSR. Of course that is why we made a treaty prohibiting open atmosphere testing.

    • Unless you consider the International Space Station to orbit in the atmosphere then that particular test wasn't in the atmosphere...
    • by stair69 (680444) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @07:05PM (#15885269)
      Though I'm not an expert on the high atmosphere testing that went on at that time from what I've read/heard there did seem to be some method to the madness of setting off nuclear bombs in near orbit.

      I believe that the US military were experimenting with the idea of creating a (hopefully temporary) layer of trapped radiation in the upper atmosphere in order to destroy/disable ICBM missiles aimed at the USA. There were quite a number of tests leading up to Starfish Prime (particularly Operation Argus [wikipedia.org] in the South Atlantic ). One of the key drivers from a military point of view for these tests was to observe the effect of the trapped radiation in the upper atmosphere on incoming dummy missles.

      I don't think that the experiments led to any breakthroughs regarding ballistic missile defence, but there were some interesting discoveries in the science. The effects of EMP from high altitude nuclear detonations weren't fully expected in the first tests (EMP from low altitude tests had been observed before, but in mid altitude testing the EMP was negligable - so significant EMP effect was not expected from high level detonations). The scientists involved in the tests were surprised that Starfish and the other Johnston Island high atmosphere detonations disrupted communications and electronic equipment as much as they did. It turns out that there are two different mechanisms for generating EMP after a nuclear detonation - the one that takes effect at high altitude is the one that causes widespread damage, whereas the low altitude one causes local damage to electronics, but no widespread damage.

      Additionally data regarding the Van Allen belts, trapped radiation from man-made detonations and SAMA (the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly [wikipedia.org] ) came in large part from the Starfish Prime and Argus experiments.

      Today the idea of setting off nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, let alone in the high atmosphere, seems crazy, but these experiments (along with the experiments done by the other countries involved) should be viewed in the context of the era. In the late 50s and early 60s when these tests were performed by the US the fear of nuclear attack was reaching a peak. Experiments of this sort were tolerated because of the potential benefit that could be had by the side carrying them out. If, for example, the US military had found a way to disable ICBMs with high level detonations of nuclear bombs they could have disabled most of the threat to the USA in one stroke. As it was the US military discovered that high altitude detonations caused a long range EMP effect, and that knowledge allowed them to adjust their strategy for nuclear attack/defence.

      For anyone who's interesting in seeing more about these exeriments I would certainly recommend the film The Rainbow Bombs [amazon.com] by Peter Kuran. His other films Trinity & Beyond [amazon.com] and Atomic Journeys [amazon.com] are excellent as well.

  • What respect the author must have for Mr. Van Allen... he can't even spell his name right.
  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:11PM (#15884121) Homepage Journal

    ... has Netcraft confirmed this?

    • Netcraft has indeed confirmed that J.A.V.A. is no longer being interpreted.
    • Yes. Netcraft also confirms that he was a truly an American Icon and that there's no denying his contributions to popular culture^W^Wspace science.

  • by Billosaur (927319) * <wgrotherNO@SPAMoptonline.net> on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:11PM (#15884124) Journal
    1. The radiation belts that bear his name
    2. His opposition to manned spaceflight and the lunar missions in particular. He was sure that if men traversed the Van Allen Belts, they would become poisoned by radioactivity and die. If he and Jerome Wiesner had their way, there would have been no manned space program, only robot probes.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      ...until such robot probes, equipped with radiation detectors, would have proven that he was wrong.
    • He was sure that if men traversed the Van Allen Belts, they would become poisoned by radioactivity and die. If he and Jerome Wiesner had their way, there would have been no manned space program, only robot probes.

      Total flame: Without acknowledging the accuracy of your "remembrance," imagine how much money we could have saved for a Superconducting Supercollider if we hadn't gone and built a damn space station to help us sort tiny screws in space.

      OT: the new comment system should strip leading blackquote

    • by susano_otter (123650) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:21PM (#15884207) Homepage
      Actually, NASA tapped Van Allen to spearhead further research into the belts he had discovered. The result of his further research was the conclusion that organisms could in fact safely traverse the belts. His research was a critical source of information for determining the velocities and trajectories necessary for such safe traversal.

      So while it's true that he initially believe the belts would be impassable, his opinion changed as a result of his own careful study of the belts.
    • His opposition to manned spaceflight and the lunar missions in particular. He was sure that if men traversed the Van Allen Belts, they would become poisoned by radioactivity and die. If he and Jerome Wiesner had their way, there would have been no manned space program, only robot probes.

      I think his opposition to NASA's manned space program, such as it was, has been exaggerated over recent years. For example, he is asked here [hobbyspace.com] whether Spaceship One has possibilities for space science. His answer was that

      • Much of his advocacy against manned space exploration stemmed from the political reality that the budget for unmanned scientific missions was repeatedly gutted to pay for manned missions of negligible scientific value. This was certainly the case in the Reagan eighties.

        He also publicly argued, less than a year before the Challenger disaster, that a catastrophic failure of the shuttle was inevitable due to its complexity. As I recall, he was pretty much alone in this at the time. I also recall that the Challenger mission was, in terms of numeric order for all shuttle flights, fairly close to the mean failure rate he calculated.

        Ironically, the parent post and much of this thread neglect the third thing he should be remembered for: he was the godfather of the US space program. The International Geophysical Year international research effort, which began in his living room in 1950, was the key catalyst for obtaining governmental support for space science and led to pretty much everything else that NASA has ever done. Without him, space science might well have been sidlined in favor of militarization instead.
    • The radiation belts that bear his name


      I remember seeing an old submarine movie as a kid where the Van Allen belts were on fire.... I think that was the first time I ever heard of them. I'm guessing this [imdb.com] is it...
    • He was sure that if men traversed the Van Allen Belts, they would become poisoned by radioactivity and die.
      Do you have a reference for this? I find it hard to believe he so radically overestimated the damage due to the radiation his own devices had measured.
    • CBC radio's Quirks and Quarks program had a story on November 19, 2005 on the subject of human exploration vs. robotic probes. It's available at http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/archives/05-06/nov19.html [www.cbc.ca] with links to OGG Vorbis and MP3 files of the show. Van Allen was interviewed among others.

      Of particular note, the Bush administration's plan to send astronauts back to the moon, the de-maintaining of Hubble, and the cost of a Mars mission (one manned trip to the moon to look at rocks = 700 mars explorer mission

    • Dr. Van Allen made so many more contributions to space science than just his discovery of the radiation belts. He was one of the founding fathers of the field of magnetospheric physics. He was also involved in the first satellite missions to visit Venus and Mars, as well as the Pioneer missions to the outer planets. Much of his opposition to manned space flight was motivated by the success of these early satellite missions and the enormous scientific return from them. He believed that unmanned missions
  • by Lord Kano (13027) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:12PM (#15884132) Homepage Journal
    NASA looses the tapes of the moon landing and Mr. Van Allen passes away. If I remember correctly the Van Allen belts figure prominently in several anti-moon landing conspiracy theories.

    Gentlemen, let the speculation begin!

    LK
  • Radiation poisoning?
  • Wikipedia (Score:3, Funny)

    by kevin_conaway (585204) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:16PM (#15884160) Homepage
    Weird, I didn't know this but according to Wikipedia, the number of Van Allen belts has tripled in the last three months.
  • Oh gods... (Score:1, Offtopic)

    Why do the taglines just keep getting worse?
    I draw the line at bad clothing puns.

    Somebody sack the writers.

    -Ed.
  • about Pluto...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:20PM (#15884199)
    Dr. Van Allen was a staunch advocate of planetary exploration with robotic spacecraft and a critic of big-budget programs for human space flight. Describing himself as "a member of the loyal opposition," he argued that space science could be done better and less expensively when left to remote-controlled vehicles.
  • Fantastic (Score:3, Funny)

    by User 956 (568564) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:22PM (#15884216) Homepage
    Prof. Van Allen team designed the Geiger counter that flew aboard Americas first orbiting satellite, Explorer 1. It detected unexpectedly intense levels of radiation caused by energetic particles trapped in the Earth magnetic field, the magnetosphere.

    Unfortunately for astronauts Reed Richards, Susan Richards, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm, NASA hadn't thought to send up an unmanned probe first.
  • Apparently the fellow regularly worked at his office/laboratory up until a month ago.

    Don't retire - You'll die!

    not that i have anything to worry about, to have any kind of retirement i'll be working until i'm 91, too.

    • I was thinking exactly the same thing. How many times have I heard of someone retiring and then kicking the bucket within a year? Seems to be a common thing.
      • I was thinking exactly the same thing. How many times have I heard of someone retiring and then kicking the bucket within a year? Seems to be a common thing.

        Seems people lose their purpose in getting up the next morning or sommat. I think Alistair Cooke went something like this. He retired from his Letter From America and other duties and seemed to go in the blink of an eye.

      • Technically he retired back in '85, but he went to work nearly every day until about a month ago. I suspect it was his ailing health that kept him at home, rather than vice versa.
  • Space Aged (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:28PM (#15884269) Homepage Journal
    "Space Age" used to mean "so new it's futuristic". Now it's starting to mean "ancient history".

    And all we got is lots more crappy TV.
    • Re:Space Aged (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Enoxice (993945)
      People won't care about outer space until we can get a competent group of people to create a space program (here's hoping South Africa http://cooltech.iafrica.com/features/870976.htm [iafrica.com]) that:

      (a) Doesn't waste all kinds of public funds (1.6bil requested for fy2007 http://www.nasa.gov/about/budget/index.html [nasa.gov]) (b) Isn't surrounded by an aura of bad PR.

      Until either that happens, or NASA pulls off something incredible to regain the respect of millions of people, our feet will be planted firmly on the ground.
    • ...Rerun Age
    • Heh. I've got somewhere a concert video from Expo '92 in Sevilla (with people like Brian May, Joe Satriani, Joe Walsh), and when it's time for Steve Vai come out and play, Brain May (IIRC) introduces him as "the master of the space-age guitar". I think I actually laughed out the first time I heard it, the term definitely has a different meaning now.
  • by roman_mir (125474)
    The Soviets once accused the U.S. of creating the inner belt as a result of nuclear testing in Nevada. The U.S. has, likewise, accused the USSR of creating the outer belt through nuclear testing. [wikipedia.org] It is uncertain how particles from such testing could escape the atmosphere and reach the altitudes of the radiation belts. Likewise, it is unclear why, if this is the case, the belts have not weakened since atmospheric testing was banned by treaty. Thomas Gold has argued that the outer belt is left over from the
    • Re:RIP (Score:2, Informative)

      by Kiliani (816330)
      The outer belt contains mostly relativistic electrons, energized in Earth's magnetosphere. The inner belt is made up of relativistic protons, a decay product of cosmic rays (having to do with the fact that a free neutron decays into a proton-electron pair, free neutrons having a half-life of only 11 minutes). See e.g. http://www.oulu.fi/~spaceweb/textbook/radbelts.htm l [www.oulu.fi] for a short description.
  • Van Allen's Rockoons (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kthejoker (931838) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @04:32PM (#15884296)
    The belt and NASA made him famous, but James was doing some crazy stuff with rockets way back when, including the Rockoons, which were rockets launched from high-altitude balloons to gather information, test flight and fuel capacities, etc.

    The Coast Guard let him shoot the Rockoons off the coast towards Greenland. When he first tried them, the rockets refused to fire. So Van Allen took some cans of orange juice, heated them, put them in the gondola next to the rocket, and covered them in insulation.

    Presto. The rockets fired.

    The definition of a great and honorable scientist; inquisitive, intuitive, unpretentious, and brilliant.
  • In today's Cedar Rapids Gazette, the obit was the front page story. Took half the front page, and 2 full pages on the inside. I was really pleased to see such great coverage!
  • He might have the original missing NASA tapes Slashdot reported today.
  • I visited James Van Allen at the University of Iowa physics building during the campaign to require government bureaucracies to purchase launch services from commercial vendors.

    His support was crucial for the passage of the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990 which, although largely resisted by NASA at the time became a bellweather for future launch service policy.

    PS: I do regret not having mentioned Dr. Van Allen's support during my Congressional testimony [geocities.com].

  • Only marginally on-topic I know, but speaking of Van Allen:

    Information on physiological effects on humans passing through the Van Allen belt seems to be distinctly lacking.

    Given that at least 29 people are reported to have passed through it during the Apollo programme, I would have thought there would have been extensive tests done both 'live' during flight and upon arrival back on earth. Does anyone know if such studies were done?

    It probably won't shut up any of the moon landing naysayers but would be int
    • Gemini program (Score:2, Informative)

      Michael Collins' memoir, "Carrying the Fire," included a table of radiation exposure for all the manned Gemini flights. Two readings were given; one for the commander, one for the pilot (who on some missions left the spacecraft to do some work outside). Gemini X, on which Collins was pilot, had the highest radiation levels, as their flight went in the South Atlantic magnetic anomoly, and others did not. Both are alive roughly 40 years later, in their mid-70s: not bad.
  • that thought it was Eddie [wikipedia.org] at the first glance?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 10, 2006 @06:08PM (#15884961)
    ... that he would teach freshman astronomy. He wasn't just a great researcher, he was also a great teacher.
  • The man (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ivarneli (4238) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @06:10PM (#15884969) Journal
    I worked on the same floor as Van Allen at the University of Iowa when I was an undergraduate. He was quite an amazing guy - even at 90 years old, he still came to his office nearly every day to work on data from Pioneer. I had a number of conversations with him, and he clearly still loved what he was doing.

    My fondest memory of him is when he was presented with an award at Iowa a few years back. The actual award was a glass globe with some intricate internal designs composed of another material. However, the globe was much heavier than it appeared. So he spent the next few minutes explaining to those around him how we could figure out its density using size and mass, and then figure out the internal composition based on that. Then he actually went through the rough calculation and narrowed it down to two or three likely materials. He was well known around the Physics department for his skills as an educator, and I'm glad that I was able to witness a bit of that firsthand.

    Up until a few years ago he was still using an ancient punchcard-based programmable calculator for most of his computations. Van obviously new it was out of date, but he had so much experience with it that he could still use it fairly quickly. He showed me the array of cards he had written over the years for doing things like converting RA/Dec to Az/Alt and performing Newton's method. Around this time, a professor of mine started to teach Van how to use modern programs like Mathcad for doing things like this, and he was very excited and receptive to working in a way that was fairly new to him.

    I know a lot of people who really admired this man, and he's really going to be missed up on the 7th floor.
    • I was a grad student there until a couple years ago. He was a really nice guy, and obviously deeply, deeply smart. I saw my first aurora borealis from the roof of Van Allen Hall, which is pretty fitting.
  • by Kohath (38547) on Thursday August 10, 2006 @07:45PM (#15885462)
    Announcer: Astronomers from Tacoma to Vladivostok have just reported an ionic disturbance in the vicinity of the Van Allen Belt. Scientists are recommending that necessary precautions be taken.
    Homer: [scoffs] Eggheads. What do they know?

    snpp [snpp.com]
  • A nice article in the iowa city news paper

    http://presscitizen.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID= /20060810/NEWS01/608100324/1079 [presscitizen.com]

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