NASA’s first-of-its kind mission to study the violent interactions of the magnetic fields surrounding Earth got underway last night with a spectacular blastoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral AFS. The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) lifted off on time at 10:44 p.m. EDT, beginning the third of 13 planned missions this year for ULA. Following a textbook ascent, each spacecraft deployed from the rocket’s upper stage sequentially, in five-minute increments, beginning at 12:16 a.m., with the last separation occurring at 12:31 a.m.
“It was a picture-perfect launch and the flight went well and everyone’s cheering,” said Omar Baez, NASA launch director for MMS. “You can’t ask for anything more. This was a really hard mission to put together and the team really made it look easy, but it’s not.”
MMS was launched aboard an Atlas 421 configuration vehicle. This variant of the Atlas family includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing and twin Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket boosters attached to the RD AMROSS RD-180 poered Atlas booster. Combined the first stage engines produced 1.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. The Atlas upper stage consisted of a Centaur upowered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.
“It is our honor to launch this mission that will study the physics of magnetic reconnection. This energy process is one of the key drivers of space weather which affects communication networks, like GPS navigation and electrical power grids here on earth,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center team, Southwest Research Institute, all of our mission partners and the entire MMS team on this successful launch of the MMS constellation.”
Controllers on the ground established communications with the four spacecraft and confirmed their health at 12:40 a.m.
“I am speaking for the entire MMS team when I say we’re thrilled to see all four of our spacecraft have deployed and data indicates we have a healthy fleet,” said Craig Tooley, project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Over the next several weeks, NASA scientists and engineers will deploy booms and antennas on the spacecraft, and test all instruments. The observatories will later be placed into a pyramid formation in preparation for science observations, which are expected to begin in early September.
“After a decade of planning and engineering, the science team is ready to go to work,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator for the MMS instrument suite science team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio (SwRI). “We’ve never had this type of opportunity to study this fundamental process in such detail.”
MMS is a NASA Solar Terrestrial Probes mission consisting of four identical science observatories whose objective is to understand the microphysics of magnetic reconnection. The four MMS observatories are designed, built and operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland and a science and instrument team led by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.
The mission will provide the first three-dimensional views of reconnection occurring in Earth’s protective magnetic space environment, the magnetosphere. Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect, disconnect, and reconfigure explosively, releasing bursts of energy that can reach the order of billions of megatons of TNT. These explosions can send particles surging through space near the speed of light.
Scientists expect the mission will not only help them better understand magnetic reconnection, but also will provide insight into these powerful events, which can disrupt modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.
“Everything to do with space weather starts with reconnection,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator for MMS from Southwest Research Institute. “The MMS mission will conduct a definitive experiment in space that will finally allow us to understand how magnetic reconnection works. A fundamental question is why and how does magnetic reconnection take place. With MMS we will be able to study the region where those reconnections take place. MMS is the only way we can solve this mystery and we look forward to doing it.”
By studying reconnection in this local, natural laboratory, scientists can understand the process elsewhere, 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 equipped with 25 sensors and can record magnetic interactions more than 100 times faster than any previous mission. The observatories were built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Each weighs about 3,000 pounds fully fueled and measures 11 feet in diameter by 4 feet high.
Once flying on their own, each spacecraft will deploy a set of booms that are carrying some of the instruments expected to measure the magnetic conditions. The shortest of the instrumented booms are about 15 feet long, while the wire booms reach out some 200 feet from each side of the spacecraft to detect the magnetic fields.
“Each of these spacecraft will have a footprint about the size of a football field,” Tooley said. Their formation will change dimensions during the mission but they will generally not get any closer than 5 miles to each other. “It’s best to think of this mission as a flying laboratory, not really a remote sensing spacecraft, essentially scientists flying these spacecraft through a natural laboratory.”
MMS will fly in the portion of space where the sun’s magnetic field connects with Earth’s and later in the night-side portion of Earth’s magnetic field where reconnection is thought to trigger the auroras known as the northern and southern lights.
The four spacecraft will fly in a pyramid formation through space to take unprecedented measurements of magnetic reconnection phenomenon as it occurs in different areas of Earth’s magnetosphere. The spacecraft will fly the first phase of the mission in an elliptical orbit of 1,600 miles above Earth to reach out more than 43,000 miles from the planet. After a year-and-a-half in that orbit, the MMS formation will take its orbit out to 95,000 miles, almost halfway to the moon.
“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection – and no mission has ever observed this fundamental process with such detail,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The depth and detail of our knowledge is going to grow by leaps and bounds, in ways that no one can yet predict.”
MMS is the fourth mission in the NASA Solar Terrestrial Probes Program. Goddard built, integrated and tested the four MMS spacecraft and is responsible for overall mission management and operations. The principal investigator for the MMS instrument suite science team is based at the SwRI. Science operations planning and instrument commanding are performed at the MMS Science Operations Center at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
More information about the MMS mission is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/mms