NASA launched two satellites Thursday that will spend the next two years exploring the Earth's radiation belts, a highly charged zone that poses dangers to communications technology, GPS satellites and other electronics and is generally avoided by spacecraft.

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes will be the first to explore two separate regions of the belts, named Van Allen belts after the astrophysicist who discovered them in 1958.

They will help scientists gather data about how the highly charged particles that make up the belts are affected by solar storms and eruptions, how they change over time and how these processes affect the upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere.


In this long-exposure photo an Atlas V 401 rocket carrying the two radiation belt probes is seen lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida early Thursday morning. (Craig Bailey, Florida Today/Associated Press)

The high-energy particles, which originate from the sun and elsewhere in space, become trapped by Earth's magnetic field and number in the trillions.

The probes will also transmit weather data back to Earth.

"The information collected from these probes will benefit the public by allowing us to better protect our satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in  press release.

The probes have been outfitted with thick aluminum protective plating and rugged electronics and antenna booms that can withstand the tough conditions within the belts, which can sometimes expand in size and engulf orbiting satellites and spacecraft.

The probes launched aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket n Cape Canaveral, Fla., around 4 a.m. ET Thursday.

It was NASA's third attempt to launch the spacecraft. Last week's attempts were thwarted by trouble with a tracking beacon on the rocket and then stormy weather. NASA chose to wait until the passage of Hurricane Isaac before trying again.

With files from The Associated Press