NASA launched a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket into space Thursday, which will bring four NASA satellites into orbit. The $1.1 billion mission will study the relations between Earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s, which is responsible for disturbing satellite navigation, power grids and communications.
Space weather is driven by a mechanism called magnetic reconnection, and the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, or MMS, wants to find out its secrets, the physics that power Earth’s space environment.
The Atlas 5 was launched from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and 13 minutes later, the rocket and its satellites were safely in orbit. After that, the four satellites, constructed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., were released at five minutes interval.
The 3,000-pound, 12-foot-wide satellites are equipped with many sensitive instruments, like four 197-foot-long radial wire boom and eight extendable antenna-like booms, among other high-tech magnetometers and electric field sensors.
The four satellites will be arranged in a pyramid-shape formation, while the distance between them will be at least 6 miles. Their mission is to capture three-dimensional images of magnetic interactions that occur in very fast in small places in space.
The scientists want to find out more about magnetic reconnection, a phenomenon which annihilates interacting magnetic fields and accelerates particles to extreme velocities.
“In the sun’s super-heated corona, magnetic fields create spectacular loops. The energy stored in these structures can release, creating explosive solar flares and coronal mass ejections”, said Jim Burch, MMS principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.
The auroral lights are an effect of magnetic recconection. They occur when fluxes of energetic particles and clouds of ionized gas ejected from the sun impact with Earth’s magnetic fields, causing intensive magnetic activity.
According to researchers, magnetic reconnection accelerates electrically charged particles and the effects can be the disruption of ground-based power grids or even space traveling and spacecraft technology.
The phenomenon is a mystery to scientists, who don’t yet understand how or why it happens. NASA believes the solution will be found in the “diffusion region” where events occur in a very small time on very short scales.
The four satellites NASA put on the orbit today will try to find such places and study them in order to find the answer.
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