In a few weeks four identically-instrumented NASA spacecraft will launch on the space agency’s next mission, one which aims to study a natural process that occurs throughout the Universe, known as magnetic reconnection. NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, or MMS, will for the first time observe the three-dimensional structure of this phenomenon by flying through areas where the Sun’s and Earth’s magnetic fields connect and disconnect in an explosive transfer of energy, and this week members of the media were invited to the clean room to speak with the mission’s leadership and to see the completed spacecraft before it’s moved to the launch pad next week.
“It’s a phenomenon that occurs in Earth’s magnetic field, on the surface of the sun, it causes solar flares when it happens on the sun itself, it happens in stars and black hole accretion discs, and it happens on the ground in controlled fusion laboratories and disrupts their attempts to get controlled fusion,” said MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley. “We hope to essentially solve the problem of how magnetic reconnection works, scientists will be able to model it and understand what the conditions are that trigger it and drive it, that’s our objective, and we believe this mission will answer that definitively.”
Most people are familiar with the “Northern Lights,, or Aurora Borealis, the eerily beautiful natural light show that occurs throughout the year at northern latitudes (and at the southern latitudes, the Aurora Australis). You can thank magnetic reconnection for that.
Understanding the process of how magnetic reconnection occurs nearby will improve our understanding of how this fundamental process works on the Sun, on other stars, and throughout space, and will teach scientists more about geomagnetic storms that have the potential to cripple satellites and interfere with GPS signals, radio communications, and electric power grids here at home.
The two-year primary mission, which has been a decade in the making, will kickoff on March 12 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V 421 rocket from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Liftoff is scheduled for 10:44 p.m. EDT.
At this point the spacecraft themselves are complete, and the MMS Safety and Mission Assurance Review (SMSR) was conducted successfully this week. Pre launch tests are finished, and the spacecraft are fueled and—after removing hundreds of non-flight items this weekend—will be ready to be encapsulated into the Atlas-V’s payload fairing on Monday, Feb. 23. The fairing, with all four MMS spacecraft stacked within, is scheduled for transport to ULA’s seaside Atlas launch complex on Friday, Feb. 27.
All four octagon-shaped satellites were developed, integrated, and tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., before being sent to Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., for final processing for launch. Each satellite is equipped with 25 science instruments and measures approximately 3.5 meters wide and 1.2 meters high, and will spin at 3 RPMs during science operations.
Together they each will fly in a highly elliptical orbit, in an adjustable pyramid-like formation, as they pass directly through nearby magnetic reconnection regions to observe the minute details of the phenomenon which is a catalyst for space weather events such as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.
“For the first part of the mission we will be fine tuning how far apart we fly the four spacecraft, to be the right scale for when we think we are catching these magnetic reconnection events, which only lasts for a second,” said Tooley. “Our closest point in orbit, our perigee, is about 7,000 km high, but our apogee for the first year is about 75,000 km, that’s basically the distance out towards the bow shock, so as the month’s pass and we go around the sun we’ll sweep into that region looking for magnetic reconnection events, that’s our primary science in the first year. We will get two passes through this region of interest in the first year.”
VIDEO: MMS Science Overview / The Many Mysteries of MMS
“For the second year we will fire our propulsion systems to double that distance to about 160,000 km to look for magnetic reconnections in the Earth’s magnetotail,” added Tooley. “Once we pass through that we think we will have collected enough magnetic reconnection events to essentially solve the problem of how does magnetic reconnection work.”
Though the mission is designed for two years of science, each satellite has enough fuel to fly for at least another one or two years after.
MMS will give scientists the opportunity to observe magnetic reconnection from the inside, as it’s happening, for the first time ever, and by focusing on the small-scale process in our own magnetosphere they will open the door to understanding what happens on larger scales throughout the Universe while helping predict space weather events here at home.
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