Technology & Science

Renowned physicist, space pioneer dies

Physicist James A. Van Allen, a leader in space exploration who discovered the radiation belts surrounding the Earth that now bear his name, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Physicist James A. Van Allen, a leader in space exploration who discovered the radiation belts surrounding the Earth that now bear his name, died Wednesday.

He was 91.

The University of Iowa, where he taught for years, announced the death in a statement on its website.

Van Allen gained global attention in the late 1950s when instruments he designed and placed aboard the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer I, discovered the bands of intense radiation that surround the Earth.

"We had discovered a whole new phenomenon which had not been known or predicted before," Van Allen said. "We were really on top of the world, professionally speaking."

Named in his honour

The bands were later named in his honour and spawned anew field of research known as magnetospheric physics, an area of study that now involves more than 1,000 investigators in more than 20 countries.

The discovery also propelled the United States in its space exploration race with the Soviet Union and prompted Time magazine to put Van Allen on the cover of its May 4, 1959, issue.

He argued against U.S. President George W. Bush'splans for a space station on the moon and a manned mission to Mars.

"I'm one of the most durable and fervent advocates of space exploration, but my take is that we could do it robotically at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results,"said Van Allen.

Even though he retired from full-time teaching in 1985, Van Allen continued to monitor data gathered by other satellites and served as an interdisciplinary scientist for the Galileo spacecraft, which reached Jupiter in 1995.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack called Van Allen'spassing"a sad day for science in America and the world."

Van Allen was named to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1959. He also was a consultant to the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, NASA and the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

Van Allen is survived by his wife, Abigail Fithian Halsey II Van Allen, five children and seven grandchildren.