by Dr. Ken Kremer, AAAP and Universe Today
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s constellation of state-of-the-art magnetospheric science satellites successfully rocketed to orbit on March 12, during a spectacular nighttime launch on a mission to unravel the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection.
The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is composed of four formation flying satellites blasted to Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 10:44 p.m. EDT. The four spacecraft were stacked like pancakes on top of one another inside the nose cone.
Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe. NASA’s fleet of four MMS spacecraft is the first mission devoted to studying this phenomenon. Scientists believe that it is the catalyst for some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system.
The night launch of the venerable Atlas V booster turned night into day as the 195 foot tall rocket roared to life on the fiery fury of about one and a half million pounds of thrust, thrilling spectators all around the Florida space coast and far beyond.
The two stage Atlas V delivered the MMS satellites to a highly elliptical orbit. They were then deployed from the rocket’s Centaur upper stage sequentially, in five-minute intervals beginning at 12:16 a.m. Friday, March 13. The last separation occurred at 12:31 a.m. About 10 minutes later at 12:40 a.m., NASA scientists and engineers confirmed the health of all four spacecraft.
Each of the identically instrumented spacecraft are about four feet tall and eleven feet wide. The deployment and activation of all four spacecraft is essential to the success of the mission, said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.
“We’ve never had this type of opportunity to study this fundamental process in such detail,” said Burch.
They will fly in a pyramid formation to conduct their science mission, spaced about 10 miles apart. That separation distance will vary over time during the two-year primary mission. Deployment and calibration process will last about six months. Science ops start September 2015.
MMS measurements should lead to better models for yielding better predicting space weather and the resulting impacts on life here on Earth and aboard the ISS. Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.
The probes were built at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where I visited them in the clean room.
For complete details check out my articles and photos at Universe Today:
Astronomy Outreach by Dr. Ken Kremer
SpaceX Launches: Apr 11-13, NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL. Evening outreach at Quality Inn, Titusville, FL
NASA Mars Rovers and the Future of Human Spaceflight: April 18/19, NEAF, Rockland Community College, Rockland, NY.