James Alfred Van Allen

James Alfred Van Allen

[van al-uhn]
Van Allen, James Alfred, 1914-2006, American physicist and space scientist, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. A graduate (Ph.D 1939) of and professor of physics (1951-85) at what is now the Univ. of Iowa, where he was an influential teacher, Van Allen discovered what are now known as the Van Allen radiation belts, regions of intense radiation surrounding the earth in space. The belts were first identified by instruments Van Allen prepared that were launched in U.S. Explorer and Pioneer satellites (1958).

During his long, productive career, Van Allen helped develop (1940-42) a proximity fuse for antiaircraft ammunition and subsequently served as a naval gunnery officer in World War II. After the war, he conducted high-altitude research using rockets and balloons, and discovered (1953) the electrons associated with the aurora borealis. Van Allen also was prominent among the scientists who proposed (1950) and organized the international scientific research program that became the International Geophysical Year (1957-58).

Although he supported the development of the U.S. space exploration efforts that culminated in the Apollo space program and moon landings (1969-72), the relative paucity of scientific data reaped by human spaceflight led him to champion the use of space probes and satellites. He subsequently studied the radiation belts of Jupiter and Saturn using data from Pioneer probes and participated in the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

James Alfred Van Allen (September 7 1914August 9, 2006) was an American space scientist at the University of Iowa. The Van Allen radiation belts were named after him, following the 1958 satellite missions (Explorer I and Explorer 3) in which Van Allen had argued that a Geiger counter should be used to detect charged particles.

Honors

Timeline

James Van Allen was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

  • 1931

James Van Allen graduated as valedictorian of Mount Pleasant Public High School.

  • 1935

Van Allen received his Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laude, from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant. During his undergraduate years, he studied with Professor Thomas Poulter, a first-class physicist. He tracked meteors, conducted a magnetic survey of Mount Pleasant, and measured cosmic rays at ground level.

  • 1936

Van Allen earned his master’s degree in solid state physics from the University of Iowa.

  • 1939

Van Allen received his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Iowa. His doctoral research was on measuring the cross-section of the deuteron-deuteron reaction.

  • 1940

As a staff physicist for the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., Van Allen worked on developing photoelectric and radio proximity fuzes for bombs, rockets, and gun-fired projectiles. It was here that Dr. Van Allen acquired his interest in cosmic rays.

  • 1942

Van Allen joined the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University to continue his work on proximity fuzes. Later in 1942, he entered the Navy, serving in the South Pacific Fleet as an assistant gunnery officer.

  • 1946

Discharged from the Navy, Van Allen returned to civilian research at APL. He organized and directed a team at Johns Hopkins University to conduct high-altitude experiments, using V-2 rockets captured from the Germans at the end of World War II. Van Allen decided a small sounding rocket was needed for upper atmosphere research and the Aerojet WAC Corporal and the Bumblebee missile were developed under a US Navy program. He drew specifications for the Aerobee and headed the committee that convinced the U.S. government to produce it.

Van Allen elected chairman of the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Panel. The panel was renamed Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel on March 18, 1948; then Rocket and Satellite Research Panel on April 29, 1948. The panel suspended operations on May 19, 1960 and had a reunion on February 2, 1968.

Cmdr. Lee Lewis, Cmdr. G. Halvorson, S. F. Singer, and James A. Van Allen develop the idea for the Rockoon during the Aerobee rocket firing cruise of the U.S.S. Norton Sound.

Van Allen left APL to accept a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

  • 1951

James Van Allen became head of the physics department at the University of Iowa. Before long, he was enlisting students in his efforts to discover the secrets of the wild blue yonder and inventing ways to carry instruments higher into the atmosphere than ever before. Van Allen was the first to devise a balloon-rocket combination that lifted rockets on balloons high above most of Earth’s atmosphere before firing them even higher. The rockets were ignited after the balloons reached an altitude of 16 kilometers.

  • 1952

As TIME reported in 1959, “Van Allen’s ‘Rockoons’ could not be fired in Iowa for fear that the spent rockets would strike an Iowan or his house.” So Van Allen convinced the U.S. Coast Guard to let him fire his rockoons from the icebreaker Eastwind that was bound for Greenland. “The first balloon rose properly to 70,000 ft., but the rocket hanging under it did not fire. The second Rockoon behaved in the same maddening way. On the theory that extreme cold at high altitude might have stopped the clockwork supposed to ignite the rockets, Van Allen heated cans of orange juice, snuggled them into the third Rockoon’s gondola, and wrapped the whole business in insulation. The rocket fired.”

  • 1953

Rockoons fired off Newfoundland detect the first hint of radiation belts surrounding Earth. The low-cost Rockoon technique was later used by the Office of Naval Research and The University of Iowa research groups in 1953-55 and 1957, from ships in sea between Boston and Thule, Greenland.

Symposium on "The Scientific Uses of Earth Satellites" held at the University of Michigan under sponsorship of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, James A. Van Allen of The University of Iowa, Chairman.

The International Geophysical Year begins. IGY is carried out by the International Council of Scientific Unions, over an 18-month period selected to match the period of maximum solar activity (e.g. sun spots). Lloyd Berkner, one of the scientists at the April 5, 1950 Silver Spring, Maryland meeting in Van Allen's home, serves as president of the ICSU from 1957 to 1959.

Thirty-six Rockoons (balloon-launched rockets) were launched from Navy icebreaker U.S.S. Glacier in Atlantic, Pacific, and Antarctic areas ranging from 75° N. to 72° S. latitude, as part of the U.S. International Geophysical Year scientific program headed by James A. Van Allen and Lawrence J. Cahill of The University of Iowa. These were the first known upper atmosphere rocket soundings in the Antartctic area. Launched from IGY Rockoon Launch Site 2, Atlantic Ocean - Latitude: 0.83° N, Longitude: 0.99° W.

The Soviet Union (USSR) successfully launches Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, as part of their participation in the IGY.

The first American satellite, Explorer 1, was launched into Earth's orbit on a Jupiter C missile from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Aboard Explorer 1 were a micrometeorite detector and a cosmic ray experiment designed by Dr. Van Allen and his graduate students. Data from Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 (launched March 26 1958) were used by the Iowa group to make the first space-age scientific discovery: the existence of a doughnut-shaped region of charged particle radiation trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

  • July 1958

United States Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act"), which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.

Pioneer 3, the third intended U.S. International Geophysical Year lunar probe under the direction of NASA with the Army acting as executive agent, was launched from the Atlantic Missile Range by a Juno II rocket. The primary objective of the flight, to place the 12.95 pound (5.87 kg) scientific payload in the vicinity of the moon, failed. Pioneer III did reach an altitude of 63,000 miles (101 Mm), providing Van Allen additional data that led to discovery of a second radiation belt. Trapped radiation starts at an altitude of several hundred miles from Earth and extends for several thousand miles into space. The Van Allen radiation belts are named for Dr. James Van Allen, their discoverer.

TIME magazine writers credited James Van Allen as the man most responsible for giving the U.S. “a big lead in scientific achievement.” They called Van Allen “a key figure in the cold war’s competition for prestige. ...Today he can tip back his head and look at the sky. Beyond its outermost blue are the world-encompassing belts of fierce radiation that bear his name. No human name has ever been given to a more majestic feature of the planet Earth.”

  • 1960 - 1985

James Van Allen, his colleagues, associates and students at The University of Iowa continued to fly scientific instruments on sounding rockets, Earth satellites (Explorer 52 / Hawkeye 1), and interplanetary spacecraft — including the first missions (Pioneer program, Mariner program, Voyager program, Galileo spacecraft) to the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Their discoveries contributed important segments to the world's knowledge of energetic particles, plasmas and radio waves throughout the solar system.

  • 1985

Dr. Van Allen retired from The University of Iowa in 1985, but continued to live in Iowa City and served as the Carver Professor of Physics, Emeritus.

The University of Iowa and the UI Alumni Association hosted a celebration to honor Professor James Van Allen and his many accomplishments, and in recognition of his 90th birthday. Activities included an invited lecture series, a public lecture followed by a cake and punch reception, and an evening banquet.

  • August 2005

An Elementary School bearing his name opens in North Liberty, Iowa.

Dr. Van Allen died at University Hospitals in Iowa City from heart failure.

Quotations

  • “Certainly one of the most enthralling things about human life is the recognition that we live in what, for practical purposes, is a universe without bounds.”
  • “...Outer space, once a region of spirited international competition, is also a region of international cooperation. I realized this as early as 1959, when I attended an international conference on cosmic radiation in Moscow. At this conference, there were many differing views and differing methods of attack, but the problems were common ones to all of us and a unity of basic purpose was everywhere evident.
  • “Many of the papers presented there depended in an essential way upon others which had appeared originally in as many as three or four different languages. Surely science is one of the universal human activities.”

References

Abigail Foerstner published a book with the title "James van Allen: The first eight billion miles" in 2007.

Van Allen

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