NASA to deploy four spacecraft to study magnetic reconnection

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Artist's impression of the four MMS spacecraft (Image: NASA)

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NASA has released a video depicting the initial deployment of an undertaking designed to study a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection. The launch of the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will see four identical spacecraft deployed from a single Atlas V rocket, set to lift off from cape Canaveral, Florida, no earlier than March next year.

Magnetic reconnection is a plasma-based phenomenon that is believed to take place throughout the known universe, occurring when two or more magnetic field lines cross, releasing a gigantic burst of energy that had previously been stored in a planetary body's magnetic field. The result of this process is the explosive release of charged particles and large-scale matter flows that are thought to be the cause of massive solar eruptions, as well as the trigger for the stunning aurora observable around the Northern and Southern poles of our planet.

The MMS mission hopes to shed light on the phenomenon via a constellation of satellites operating in low-Earth orbit. These satellites will periodically cross through two known magnetic reconnection regions, gathering data via super-fast scientific instruments. Prior to launch, the four satellites are stacked one on top of another in the fairings of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – a tested and proven method of satellite delivery boasting a 100 percent mission success rate.

Upon achieving orbit, the upper-stage fairings separate, allowing the spacecraft to deploy sequentially, positioning themselves to form a giant pyramid, or tetrahedron, at which point the probes will extend a series of booms containing scientific equipment. This formation should allow the spacecraft to gather information on the 3D structure of the phenomenon with a level of detail unattainable by previous missions.

NASA graphic illustrating Earth's magnetosphere – the two grey boxes indicate known magnetic reconnection regions (Image: NASA)

Each of the four identical MMS spacecraft boasts a compliment of 25 sensors comprising 11 instruments. Power is provided to the equipment via solar panels that cover each of the spacecraft's eight sides. The plethora of Instruments aboard the probes are separated into three sub-categories or "suites."

The Hot Plasma Suite uses Fast Plasma Investigation and Hot Plasma Composition Analyzer instruments to observe the characteristics of plasma during the magnetic reconnection, whilst the Energetic Particles Detector Suite keeps track of the high energy particles spewed out by the phenomenon. Finally, the spacecraft's Fields Suite will observe the behavior of electric and magnetic fields and waves over the course of an incident.

By utilizing such a wide range of scientific equipment in a constellation of four spacecraft, the mission should be prepared to document and analyze a magnetic connection event in all its forms, whether it be isolated, or spanning a vast region of space. Whilst such a mission may at first glance appear to be blue sky science, NASA believes that insights offered by the MMS mission could aid in the creation of clean energy solutions such as fusion energy reactors, the development of which has thus far been hampered by interference caused by magnetic reconnection.

The video below, courtesy of NASA, outlines the launch and initial deployment of the four MMS spacecraft.

Source: NASA

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