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  • Space Pioneer, Physicist James Van Allen Dies at 91
Aug 2006
IOWA CITY, Iowa, Aug. 9, 2006 -- Physicist James A. Van Allen, a US space pioneer who discovered the bands of intense radiation surrounding the Earth that now bear his name, died this morning at the age of 91.

A statement about Van Allen's death was released today by the University of Iowa, where he taught physics and general astronomy from 1951-85.

The highlight of Van Allen's career, the university said, was his use of instruments carried aboard the first successful US satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958 to discover the radiation bands -- now known as the Van Allen radiation belts -- surrounding the Earth. It came at the height of the US-Soviet space race and put the United States on the map in the field of space exploration.van-allen.jpg

Physicist James A. Van Allen in North Liberty, Iowa, in February 1994 at one of 10 radio-telescope antennas across the globe that comprise the Very Long Baseline. Van Allen, a US space pioneer who discovered the bands of radiation that surround the Earth, died today at 91. (Photo: Tom Jorgensen, University of Iowa Office of University Relations)

Van Allen also surveyed the radiation belts of Jupiter in 1973 using the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and discovered and surveyed Saturn's radiation belts using data from the Pioneer 11 spacecraft in 1979.

A critic of manned space flight, Van Allen described himself as "a member of the loyal opposition" when it came to discussions of big-budget space programs, declaring that space science could be done better and more cheaply with remote-controlled, unmanned spacecraft.

Though he retired from active teaching in 1985, he continued to monitor data from Pioneer 10 throughout the spacecraft's 1972-2003 operational lifetime and serve as an interdisciplinary scientist for the Galileo spacecraft, which reached Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995.

UI Provost Michael Hogan said, "James Van Allen was one of the university’s most influential and best-regarded scholars of all time. Yet he remained the most unassuming and caring man. We will all miss him deeply."

Van Allen received his bachelor's degree in physics from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1935. While an undergraduate, he assisted the senior scientist of the second Byrd Expedition (1934-35) to Antarctica in preparing seismic and magnetic experimental equipment. (In 2004, the American Polar Society commemorated his work by presenting Van Allen with its Honors of the Society award.) He earned his master's and doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1936 and 1939, respectively.

From 1940 through 1942, he helped develop radio proximity fuzes -- detonators to increase the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire -- for the defense of ships. Sponsored by the National Defense Research Council, his work was conducted at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University.

In 1946, Van Allen returned to the Applied Physics Laboratory, where he directed high-altitude experimental work using V2 and Aerobee rockets, and, in 1951, he accepted a Guggenheim research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Also in 1951, he became a professor and physics and astronomy department head at UI.

During the 1950s, he and his graduate students launched rockets and "rockoons" -- rockets carried aloft by balloons -- to conduct cosmic ray experiments above the atmosphere. A highlight of that work was the 1953 discovery of electrons believed to be the driving force behind the aurora. In 1956, he proposed the use of US satellites for cosmic-ray investigations and through "preparedness and good fortune," he later wrote, the experiment was selected as the principal payload for the first flight of a four-stage Jupiter C rocket.

Van Allen played an important role in planning the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) and carried out shipboard expeditions to Greenland and southward to the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica in 1957. IGY culminated in the Jan. 31, 1958 launch of Explorer 1 and its scientific payload. Van Allen's instruments included a Geiger counter, which provided information that regions of intense radiation surround the Earth. The discovery marked the birth of the research field of magnetospheric physics, an enterprise that grew to involve more than 1000 investigators in more than 20 countries.

In 1974 People Magazine named Van Allen one of the top 10 teaching college professors in the country.

Van Allen joined the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1948 and received its highest honors, including the John A. Fleming Award in 1963 for eminence in geophysics and the William Bowie Medal in 1977 for outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.

In recognition of his contributions to the field of planetary science, in 1994 Van Allen received the 1994 Gerard P. Kuiper Prize from the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. Also that year, he received a lifetime achievement award from NASA.

Van Allen had been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1959. The National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement, was presented to him in 1987 by President Reagan. In 1989, he received the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, considered to be the Nobel Prize of space exploration.

Van Allen is survived by his wife, Abigail, his five children and seven grandchildren. A tribute page to Van Allen can be found at:

The emission and/or propagation of energy through space or through a medium in the form of either waves or corpuscular emission.
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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