The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has successfully launched its newest scientific satellite designed to monitor the radiation environment of near-Earth space.
JAXA's Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace satellite was sent into space aboard an Epsilon spacecraft, which took off from the Uchinoura Space Center on Tuesday, Dec. 20.
The space agency hopes that the ERG satellite will be able to reach a highly elliptical orbit about 215 miles to 18,640 miles above the Earth. This would allow the probe to make it to the Van Allen radiation belts, a region where the magnetic field of the planet has trapped various particles, including fast-moving electrons.
JAXA officials said these particles can cause significant damage on the computer systems of satellites orbiting the planet. They also pose a threat to astronauts working in deep space.
Japan's ERG Satellite
According to JAXA's fact sheet, the main goal of the ERG mission is to find out how high-energy electrons are created and accelerated in the Van Allen radiation belts. Scientists also want to know how exactly space storms are able to develop.
The ERG satellite is tasked with conducting a comprehensive observation of various particles, such as ions and electrons, located near the equatorial plane in the Earth's geospace. Researchers have long suspected that this region is where fast-moving electrons are accelerated.
JAXA said the space probe has been fitted with nine different scientific instruments designed to monitor activity in the radiation belts. It will remain in near-Earth for at least an entire year while it conducts its work.
Tuesday's launch also marks the second time Japan's Epsilon spacecraft has blasted off into space and first for its "enhanced" version. Developed by IHI Aerospace, the original version of the rocket made its maiden launch in September 2013.
The 85-foot-tall Japanese rocket is built to carry loads of up to 3,300 pounds into the Earth's low orbit. It is meant to provide companies and organizations with an affordable option of sending their scientific satellites into space. JAXA said costs for the spacecraft's first launch ran at about ¥3.8 billion ($32.4 million).
The latest version of the Epsilon rocket is now capable of transporting about 30 percent more weight into orbit compared to its original version.
While it still makes use of the same first stage booster as that of the original Epsilon, the newest model has been fitted with an improved second stage booster that allows the spacecraft to carry about 9,500 pounds (4.3 metric tons) more propellant.
Engineers have also updated the structural components of all of the Epsilon's booster stages to make them lighter and easier to manufacture.