Magnetospheric Multiscale Observatories Processed For Launch

Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

February 19, 2015 – NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories have been processed for launch in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.

MMS is an unprecedented NASA mission to study 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 work together to provide the first three-dimensional view of this fundamental process, which occurs throughout the universe. The mission will study the microphysics of three fundamental plasma processes: magnetic reconnection, energetic particle acceleration, and turbulence.

Plasma is the mix of positively and negatively charged gas particles that make up the stars, fill space, and account for an estimated 99% of the observable universe. Plasmas behave unlike anything we experience on a regular basis on Earth because they conduct electricity and travel with their own set of magnetic fields entrapped in the material. Changing magnetic fields affect the way charged particles move and vice versa, so the net effect is a complex, constantly-adjusting system sensitive to minute variations.

Under normal conditions, even in this constantly changing plasma, the magnetic field lines don’t braek or merge with other field lines, but sometimes, as two sets of field lines get close to each other in particular configurations, the plasma disconnects from the magnetic field and the entire pattern changes in a process known as magnetic reconnection.

When magnetic reconnection occurs, the amount of energy released can be formidable, hurling particles off into new directions at incredible speeds. These processes play an important role in what is known as “space weather.” Space weather can disrupt power grids, communication and navigation systems, and create radiation hazards on Earth.

The mission observes reconnection directly in Earth’s protective magnetic space environment, the magnetosphere. 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.

Each MMS observatory is in the shape of an octagon, roughly 11 feet across and 4 feet high, and built around a central cylindrical thrust tube. The majority of the science instruments and associated electronics are mounted on the underside of the top deck. The flight control hardware in installed on the upper side of the bottom deck. Each observatory is also equipped with six long electric antennas with science sensors on the end as part of the science experiments. Primary power is supplied by eight solar array panels, with a secondary battery for energy storage and use during eclipses.

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder is hosting the MMS Science Operations Center (SOC), which includes science operations planning, instrument command sequence development, and science analysis support.

Additionally, science data for all MMS measurements will be hosted at LASP and centrally disseminated to the science community. LASP Director, Dan Baker, is leading the SMART (Solving Magnetospheric Acceleration, Reconnection, and Turbulence) Science Operations Center, and LASP built several key components to the MMS FIELDS investigation instruments.

MMS is a NASA mission led by the Goddard Space Flight Center. The instrument payload science team consists of researchers from a number of institutions and is led by the Southwest Research Institute.

Launch of the four identical observatories aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is managed by Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program. Liftoff is currently targeted for 10:44 p.m. EDT on March 12.