Like sending sensors up into a hurricane, NASA has flown four spacecraft through an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection is one of the prime drivers of space radiation and so it is a key factor in the quest to learn more about our space environment and protect our spacecraft and astronauts as we explore farther and farther from Earth.
A new paper printed on May 12 in Science, provides the first observations from inside a magnetic reconnection event. The research shows that magnetic reconnection is dominated by the electrons in space and the physics that drives them – thus providing the first ever information for what powers this fundamental process in nature.
The effects of this sudden release of particles and energy – such as giant eruptions on the sun, the aurora, radiation storms in near-Earth space, high energy cosmic particles that come from other galaxies -- have been observed throughout the solar system and beyond. But we have never been able to witness this phenomenon of magnetic reconnection directly. Satellites have observed tantalizing glances of particles speeding by, but not the impetus -- like seeing the debris flung out from a tornado, but never seeing the storm itself.
MMS is made of four identical spacecraft that launched in March 2015. They fly in a pyramid formation to create a full 3-dimensional map of any phenomena it observes. On October 16, 2015, the spacecraft traveled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth’s magnetic field bumps up against the sun’s magnetic field.