NASA’s four MMS spacecraft in orbit to solve magnetic reconnection mystery

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NASA’s March 12 launch of Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft went ahead as planned atop the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41.

The four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft are now positioned in Earth’s orbit to begin the first space mission dedicated to the study of a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection – a process that physicists believe is a catalyst for some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system.

After reaching orbit, each spacecraft deployed from the rocket’s upper stage sequentially, in five-minute increments with the first one separating at 12:16 a.m. Friday and the last one separating at 12:31 a.m. NASA revealed that its engineers were able to confirm the health of all separated spacecraft at 12:40 a.m.

The mission would provide the first three-dimensional views of reconnection occurring in Earth’s protective magnetic space environment, the magnetosphere. Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect, disconnect, and reconfigure explosively, releasing bursts of energy that can reach the order of billions of megatons of trinitrotoluene (commonly known as TNT). These explosions could send particles surging through space near the speed of light.

Scientists expect the mission would not only help them better understand magnetic reconnection, but also would provide insight into these powerful events, which could disrupt modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.

“After a decade of planning and engineering, the science team is ready to go to work,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator for the MMS instrument suite science team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio (SwRI). “We’ve never had this type of opportunity to study this fundamental process in such detail.”

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection – and no mission has ever observed this fundamental process with such detail,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The depth and detail of our knowledge is going to grow by leaps and bounds, in ways that no one can yet predict.”