Following a successful launch at 8:44 p.m. MDT Thursday, NASA’s four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft are positioned in Earth’s orbit 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.
The spacecraft, positioned one on top of the other on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-421 rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After reaching orbit, each spacecraft deployed from the rocket’s upper stage sequentially, in five-minute increments, beginning at 10:16 p.m., with the last separation occurring at 10:32 p.m. NASA scientists and engineers were able to confirm the health of all separated spacecraft at 10:40 p.m.
Comprised of four identical, octagonal spacecraft flying in a pyramid formation, the MMS mission is designed to better understand the physical processes of geomagnetic storms, solar flares, and other energetic phenomena throughout the universe.
The goal is to study magnetic reconnection, the primary process by which energy is transferred from the solar wind to Earth’s protective magnetic space environment. The four spacecraft each carry 25 instruments that will record enormous amounts of data, and will provide the first three-dimensional views of reconnection occurring in Earth’s magnetosphere.
LASP serves as the mission Science Operations Center (SOC), which includes science operations planning, instrument command sequence development, and science analysis support. Science data for all MMS measurements is hosted at LASP and then centrally disseminated to the science community. LASP director, Dan Baker, is the lead scientist for the MMS SOC.
“Many of us from LASP had the privilege of watching a picture-perfect launch of the MMS spacecraft last evening from Cape Canaveral,” said Baker. “It was a beautiful night and the countdown could not have gone better. Now begins a long and complicated commissioning phase, during which LASP will become the real hub of activity for turning on 100 instruments on the four MMS spacecraft.”
Over the next several weeks, LASP scientists, engineers, and University of Colorado students will deploy booms and antennas on the spacecraft, upload commands, and assess the health of each of the 100 instruments. The observatories will later be placed into a pyramid formation in preparation for science observations, which are expected to begin in early September.
LASP built several key components to the MMS FIELDS investigation instruments, including the door and preamplifier assemblies for the Spin-plane Double Probe (SDP) electric field instrument, the Axial Double Probe (ADP) electric field instrument including booms, sensors, and preamplifiers, and the Digital Signal Processor (DSP) electronics that support onboard capture and processing of the ADP, SDP, and Search Coil Magnetometer (SCM) electric and magnetic field measurements.
Scientists expect the mission will not only help them better understand magnetic reconnection, but also will provide unprecedented details of 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.