January 22, 2016 – Looking like artificial shooting stars, the four Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft appear as greenish streaks in this series of photos taken with a DSLR camera from Japan on November 30, 2015, at 12:11 p.m. MST (December 1, 2015, at 4:11 a.m. local time). The spacecraft appear lit up to our eyes, because they reflect sunlight coming in from over the horizon.
The slightly staggered spacing of the four spacecraft reflects their stretched-out pyramid-shaped flying formation, which allows them to create three-dimensional maps of the particles and magnetic fields in near-Earth space — key information for understanding the dynamic magnetic system around our planet and an explosive process called magnetic reconnection, which can send particles hurtling through space at dramatic speeds.
The four spacecraft were flying at distances of six to 60 miles apart as they streaked over Sagamihara, Japan, near Tokyo on Earth’s night side. Over the day side, their formation compressed into a three-sided pyramid shape with a mere six miles between each of the spacecraft — the tightest multi-spacecraft formation ever flown in orbit.
The bright spot near the top of the image is the brighter star of the constellation Canis Minor. Two pieces of space junk are also visible — in the upper left of the frame, an Atlas 1 Centaur rocket body can be seen as it shoots across the sky. Near the bottom of the frame, an Ariane 5 upper stage moves more slowly from right to left.
Captured by space scientist Naritoshi Kitamura from JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, the 10 two-second exposures were taken with a Canon EOS 6D with sensitivity ISO-25600, F5.6 aperture, and 300 mm focal length.
Planned for more than 10 years, the MMS mission launched four identical spacecraft on a single rocket in March 2015. The spacecraft are flying through the boundaries of Earth’s magnetic system, the magnetosphere. Their initial orbit is taking them through the dayside boundaries of the magnetosphere — known as the magnetopause — where the solar wind and other solar events drive magnetic reconnection. Eventually, their orbit will loop out farther to carry them through the farthest reaches of the magnetosphere on the night side, where magnetic reconnection is thought to be driven by the build-up of stored energy.
MMS is the fourth NASA Solar Terrestrial Probes (STP) program mission. Goddard built, integrated and tested the four MMS spacecraft and is responsible for overall mission management and mission operations. The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, leads the Instrument Suite Science Team, with the University of New Hampshire leading the FIELDS instrument suite. Science operations planning and instrument command sequence development are performed at the MMS Science Operations Center at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.