Magnetosphere Satellites Launch

Four satellites set to launch today on a two-year mission to analyze Earth's magnetic fields

2 min read
Magnetosphere Satellites Launch
Illustration: Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab/NASA

img Photo: Chris Gunn/NASA

Update, 13 March: NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission had a picture-perfect launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida at 10:44 p.m. ET following a smooth countdown. All four spacecraft that are part of the mission "appear healthy following separation," the agency says.

To solve a mystery concerning powerful geomagnetic storms that can threaten Earth's satellites and power grids, NASA is launching a quartet of spacecraft into orbit on 12 Marchfor a two-year mission to analyze magnetic fields around the Earth.

A geomagnetic storm in March 1989 blacked out the entire Canadian province of Quebec, leaving millions of customers in the dark and damaging transformers as far as New Jersey, and ones 10 times worse are possible, such as the 1859 solar superstorm.

Every step leading to such intense bursts of space weather are ultimately driven by a mysterious phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection, which occurs in clouds of electrically charged gas known as plasmas. Magnetic fields are entrapped inside plasmas, and magnetic field lines can break and reconnect with each other within these clouds, explosively converting magnetic energy to heat and kinetic energy.

Scientists want to know exactly what triggers magnetic reconnection, but until now, researchers have only seen reconnection happen in the laboratory. NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is the first space mission dedicated to understanding of how this phenomenon works not only on Earth, but on the sun, other stars, and throughout space. After a decade of planning and engineering, the mission is scheduled to launch on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:44 p.m. on 12 March. The weather forecast for the launch so far calls for a 70 percent chance of acceptable conditions at launch time, with some concern over thick clouds.

MMS is composed of four identical solar-powered spacecraft, each armed with an identical set of 11 instruments made of 25 sensors. The octagonal 1,360-kilogram probes will fly in a 

During the mission's first phase, the spacecraft will fly for a year and a half through reconnection sites on Earth's day side, where matter from the sun connects with Earth's magnetic field. During the second phase, MMS will zip through reconnection sites for six months on Earth's night side, where that solar material can flow to Earth's magnetic tail.

The reconnection sites are thin, meaning the spacecraft will fly through each in less than a second. However, their sensors are the fastest NASA has ever flown, quick enough to measure the magnetic and electric fields present as well as the particle velocities in those instances. These will help scientists for the first time create 3-D views of magnetic reconnection from the inside as it happens.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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