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NASA Hosts a Pre-Launch Briefing for the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission
February 25, 2015

Related briefing materials can be found here.


After a decade of planning and engineering, NASA is in its last weeks of preparation to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission. MMS is scheduled to fly into orbit on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:44 pm on March 12, 2015.

On Feb. 25, 2015, at a pre-launch press-briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, scientists and engineers will discuss the mission's past and future, including the challenges of building such a complex mission consisting of four identical spacecraft and the science expected of it.

MMS will study a little-understood magnetic phenomenon that happens rarely on Earth, but is thought to be the catalyst for some of the most powerful events in the universe. Magnetic reconnection, as it is called, occurs when magnetic fields throughout the universe – as can be found surrounding Earth, at the sun, near black holes, and at the borders of the heliosphere where NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft currently resides – come together in a mismatched alignment. The magnetic fields explosively realign with bursts of energy – sometimes on the order of billions of megatons of TNT – that can send particles surging through space near the speed of light.

[image-51]Magnetic reconnection also can have an impact on humans. Magnetic reconnection is what allows energy and material from the sun to break through the boundaries of Earth's protective magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere, into near-Earth space. That energy and solar material can lead to a whole host of space weather effects, which can disrupt radio communications, interfere with satellite electronics or even affect utility power grids on the ground.

The first speaker at the press briefing will be Jeff Newmark, the interim director for the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. Heliophysics is the study of the sun, and its interactions with Earth and the solar system, including space weather. Newmark will discuss how the MMS mission fits into the Heliophysics System Observatory fleet, which currently consists of 18 missions that use 29 spacecraft. Together, these missions can track events near the sun, such as massive solar eruptions called solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, as well as how such emissions spread out, whether toward Earth or to the farthest reaches of the heliosphere. MMS adds critical observational power to this fleet, helping scientists understand the physics of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect with unprecedented detail.

Jim Burch, the principal investigator for the MMS instrument suite science team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, will speak second about the science of magnetic reconnection. Reconnection is still a relatively young field and it was controversial when first hypothesized as an event in the magnetically intense and complex areas on the sun called sunspots. Over time, however, magnetic reconnection has become more and more accepted as something that happens not only on the sun, but in other stars and as the catalyst for such things as giant jets emitted from supernovas. Magnetic reconnection is also now known to interfere with attempts to create clean power via nuclear fusion.


Burch will discuss how now is the perfect time for this mission -- MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.

The third speaker is Craig Tooley, MMS Project Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Tooley will discuss the challenges of building the MMS mission, which consist of four identical spacecraft. Tooley led the engineering team that built the observatories simultaneously over the course of five years -- an engineering triumph and a first for Goddard. In addition to the complexities of building four observatories, each MMS observatory contains 25 sensors, including eight extended booms.

The fourth speaker will be Paul Cassak, a plasma physicist at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Cassak will discuss the excitement the science community has about the launch of MMS. While a few previous missions have offered tantalizing suggestions about the details of magnetic reconnection, no mission has ever been dedicated to its study – and no mission has ever observed it with the resolution of MMS. With four spacecraft flying in a tight formation, MMS will be able to track a magnetic reconnection event traveling through space in a way never before possible. In addition, its sensors are the fastest ever flown, with some being 100 times faster than any previous investigation.  

This kind of improved observation capability is like exploring a new continent previously seen only by satellite pictures. The depth and detail of our knowledge is going to grow by leaps and bounds, in ways that no one can yet predict. The scope is expected to be vast, with applications to the science of black holes, neutron stars, the sun, and, of course, space weather effects near Earth.

Related Links

› More on MMS
› Related Briefing Materials

Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Graphic of Earth's magnetic field.
A giant magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere, surrounds Earth. NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission, studies how a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection allows energy and particles from the sun to funnel inside the magnetosphere in to near Earth space.
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Animated reconnection graphic.
At it's most basic, magnetic reconnection occurs when two field lines come together and realign into a new configuration. It happens all over the universe and is the catalyst for aurora near Earth, giant explosions on the sun such as solar flares, and even giant jets streaming out of supernovae.
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The four MMS spacecraft stacked for testing.
The four observatories for NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale mission – shown here stacked for testing in April 2014 – are scheduled to launch on March 12, 2015.
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