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MMS spacecraft in Earth’s Orbit, preparing to study magnetic reconnection phenomenon

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Following a successful launch at 02:44 UTC on March 13, 2015, NASA’s four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft are now positioned in Earth’s orbit and ready to begin the first space mission dedicated to the study of a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection. This process is thought to be the catalyst for some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system.

Over the next several weeks, NASA scientists and engineers will deploy booms and antennas on the spacecraft, and test all instruments. The observatories will later be placed into a pyramid formation in preparation for science observations, which are expected to begin in early September.

“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.”

The mission will 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 can send particles surging through space near the speed of light.

At it's most basic, magnetic reconnection occurs when two field lines come together and realign into a new configuration. It happens all over the universe and is the catalyst for aurora near Earth, giant explosions on the sun such as solar flares, and even giant jets streaming out of supernovae. Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Duberstein

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

By studying reconnection in this local, natural laboratory, scientists can understand the process elsewhere, such as in the atmosphere of the sun and other stars, in the vicinity of black holes and neutron stars, and at the boundary between our solar system's heliosphere and interstellar space.

The spacecraft will fly in a tight formation through regions of reconnection activity. Using sensors designed to measure the space environment at rates 100 times faster than any previous mission.

“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.”

Featured image credit: NASA

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