On March 12 from Cape Canaveral Florida, NASA is scheduled to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission, which will provide unprecedented detail on a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection. The process of reconnection involves the explosive release of energy when the magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect. These fields help protect Earth from harmful effects of solar storms and cosmic rays. Magnetic reconnection also occurs throughout the universe and can accelerate particles up to nearly the speed of light.
By studying reconnection in this local, natural laboratory, MMS helps us understand reconnection elsewhere as well, 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.
MMS consists of four identical observatories that will provide the first three-dimensional view of magnetic reconnection. The four MMS observatories will fly through reconnection regions in a tight formation in well under a second, so key sensors on each spacecraft are designed to measure the space environment at rates faster than any previous mission.
Heliophysics is the study of the physical domain dominated by the Sun and its extension into space—the heliosphere. This physical domain includes our Sun and the space environments of Earth and other planets, and stretches out to the region of interstellar space. The Sun’s variability and extended atmosphere drive some of the greatest changes in our local magnetic environment, affecting our own atmosphere, ionosphere, and our climate. Heliophysics is also the underlying science of space weather. Space weather directly affects the safety of humans in space and on Earth by influencing the operation of electrical power grids, communications and navigation systems, gas and oil pipelines, and spacecraft electronics and orbital dynamics.
Using the entire fleet of solar, heliospheric, magnetospheric, ionospheric, and upper atmospheric missions, and data from planetary spacecraft, NASA operates the Heliophysics System Observatory (HSO) as a distributed observatory to discover the larger scale and/or
coupled processes at work throughout the complex system that makes up our space environment. This distributed observatory has flexibility and capabilities that evolve with each new mission launched. In addition to supplying valued science data, many operating HSO missions provide key observations used to predict space weather. The HSO is a continuously evolving fleet, with each mission providing key inputs from unique vantage points.
MMS solves the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, explosively releasing energy via a process known as magnetic reconnection. MMS consists of four identical spacecraft that will provide the first three-dimensional views of this fundamental process that occurs throughout our universe. MMS uses Earth’s protective magnetic space environment, the magnetosphere, as a natural laboratory to directly observe how it interacts with the sun’s extended magnetic field, which can result in reconnection. The four MMS spacecraft fly in varying formations through reconnection regions in well under a second, so key sensors on each MMS spacecraft have been designed to take certain measurements of the space environment 100 times faster than any previous mission. Like stretched rubber bands, magnetic fields store energy that is released explosively when the field lines are broken during reconnection. Unlike rubber bands, reconnection can drive particles to nearly the speed of light. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Video showing the following images: (1) Flares from a black hole accredion disk as observed by the NASA Chandra spacecraft; (2) Solar flares on the Sun observed by SDO; (3) Animation of CME impact on the Earth's magnetosphere; (4) Image of proton aurora from the NSA IMAGE spacecraft; (5) Tokamak controlled fusion device.
This animation shows Earth with a rendering of magnetic fields in yellow. The sun is off the screen to the left. Magnetic fields are coming in from the left, and when they reach the magnetic fields of Earth, they break. This breaking of magnetic fields is magnetic reconnection, which is the process being studied by NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission.
Credit: Paul Cassak, West Virginia University, using the BATS-R-US code developed at University of Michigan and computational resources at NASA's Community Coordinated Modeling Center
Photograph of aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, from Iceland in March, 2013. These dynamic naturally occurring light displays happen as a result of magnetic reconnection in the Earth's magnetosphere, the region of space where the Earth's magnetic field is important. The MMS mission will provide unprecedented high resolution measurements of magnetic reconnection.
Credit: Emil Kepko, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation:
Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version 220.127.116.11.0