Four NASA spacecraft search for secrets of magnetic explosions

A phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection releases crazy amounts of energy around our planet. NASA now has a way to study it in more detail than ever.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Liftoff! NASA now has a way to investigate what it describes as possibly the catalyst "for some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system." NASA

Quick, say "Magnetospheric Multiscale mission" five times fast. NASA wasn't daunted, however, and on Thursday, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket thundered up from Cape Canaveral carrying four octagonal disc-shaped spacecraft, which were released into orbit about 5 minutes apart.

The four spacecraft are now zooming around the planet and will eventually be steered into a pyramid formation with the goal of examining magnetic reconnection, a fundamental and dramatic process that can disrupt earthly communications systems.

The four spacecraft seen as a stack before being encapsulated for launch. NASA/Kim Shiflett

"Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect, disconnect and reconfigure explosively, releasing bursts of energy that can reach the order of billions of megatons of trinitrotoluene (commonly known as TNT)," says a NASA report about the MMS mission. "These explosions can send particles surging through space near the speed of light."

Through this mission, scientists hope to better understand not only on how this phenomenon disrupts communications networks, electrical grids and GPS navigation here on Earth, but also how it functions elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.

In the first phase of the mission, each spacecraft will fly in an elliptical orbit that will take it over 43,000 miles from the planet, according to a separate NASA statement. In phase two, their maximum range will be extended to 95,000 miles. The craft will be flying both in the areas where the sun's magnetic field meets our own and the night-side portion of Earth's magnetic field, where magnetic reconnection is thought to be responsible for the northern and southern lights.

They will deploy their instruments on arms that extend 15 to 200 feet from each side of the craft. "Each of these spacecraft will have a footprint about the size of a football field," said Craig Tooley, program manager for MMS. The 3,000-pound spacecraft (weight when fully fueled) can "record magnetic transactions more than 100 times faster than any previous mission," according to NASA.

"Everything to do with space weather starts with reconnection," explained Jim Burch, principal investigator for MMS from Southwest Research Institute. "A fundamental question is, why and how does magnetic reconnection take place? With MMS we will be able to study the region where those reconnections take place. MMS is the only way we can solve this mystery and we look forward to doing it."