NASA Unravels Mysteries of Magnetic Reconnection with Nighttime Blastoff of MMS Satellite Quartet – Watch Live

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A state of the art quartet of identical science satellites aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection is slated for a spectacular nighttime blastoff tonight, March 12, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying and identically instrumented observatories whose objective is providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

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.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes. You can watch the MMS launch live on NASA TV, below, starting at 8 p.m.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Spectators ringing the Florida space coast region and ranging well beyond should be treated to a magnificent fireworks display and skyward streak of perhaps several minutes – weather and clouds permitting.

Currently the weather forecast is 70 percent “GO” for favorable conditions at launch time. The primary concerns for a safe and successful launch are for cumulus clouds and thick clouds.

In the event of a 24 hour delay for any reason the weather forecast is 60 percent “GO.”

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The 195 foot tall rocket and encapsulated MMS satellite payload were rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 on Wednesday March 10 at 10 a.m. on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF to the Cape Canaveral pad.

The two stage Atlas V rocket will deliver the MMS constellation to a highly elliptical orbit.

The venerable rocket with a 100% success rate will launch in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Atlas first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine producing 22,300 lb of thrust.

The first stage is 12.5 ft in diameter and fueled with liquid propellants. The RD-180 burns RP-1 highly purified kerosene and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of sea level thrust.

This is ULA’s 4th launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MMS, Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Turbulence, Solar Flares and Magnetism

In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

What’s more fun than something that misbehaves? When it comes to solar dynamics, we know a lot, but there are many things we don’t yet understand. For example, when a particle filled solar flare lashes out from the Sun, its magnetic field lines can do some pretty unexpected things – like split apart and then rapidly reconnect. According to the flux-freezing theorem, these magnetic lines should simply “flow away in lock-step” with the particles. They should stay intact, but they don’t. It’s not just a simple rule they break… it’s a law of physics.

What can explain it? In a paper published in the May 23 issue of “Nature”, an interdisciplinary research team led by a Johns Hopkins mathematical physicist may just have found a plausible explanation. According to the group, the underlying factor is turbulence – the “same sort of violent disorder that can jostle a passenger jet when it occurs in the atmosphere” – or the one your brother leaves behind after he’s eaten baked beans. By employing a well-organized and logically constructed computer modeling technique, the researchers were able to simulate what happens when magnetic field lines meet up with turbulence in a solar flare. Armed with this information, they were then able to state their case.

“The flux-freezing theorem often explains things beautifully,” said Gregory Eyink, a Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics professor who was lead author of the “Nature” study. “But in other instances, it fails miserably. We wanted to figure out why this failure occurs.”

Just what is the flux-freezing theorem? Maybe you’ve heard of Hannes Alfvén. He was a Swedish electrical engineer, plasma physicist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). He’s the man responsible for explaining what we now know as Alfvén waves – a low-frequency travelling oscillation of the ions and the magnetic field in plasma. Well, some 70 years ago, he came up with the thought that magnetic lines of force sail along a locomotive fluid similar to snippets of thread flowing along a stream. It should be impossible for them to break and then join again. However, solar physicists have discovered this just isn’t the case when it comes to activity within a particularly violent solar flare. In their observations, they have determined that the magnetic field lines within these flares can stretch to the breaking point and then reconnect in a surprisingly quick amount of time – as little as 15 minutes. When this happens, it expels a copious amount of energy which, in turn, powers the flare.

“But the flux-freezing principle of modern plasma physics implies that this process in the solar corona should take a million years!” Eyink animatedly states. “A big problem in astrophysics is that no one could explain why flux-freezing works in some cases but not others.”

Of course, there has always been speculation that turbulence may have been the root source of the enigmatic behavior. Time for investigation? You bet. Eyink then joined forces – and minds – with other experts in astrophysics, mechanical engineering, data management and computer science, based at Johns Hopkins and other institutions. “By necessity, this was a highly collaborative effort,” Eyink said. “Everyone was contributing their expertise. No one person could have accomplished this.”

Gregory Eyink, professor of applied mathematics and statistics at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Nat Creamer.
Gregory Eyink, professor of applied mathematics and statistics at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Nat Creamer.
The next step was to create a computer simulation – a simulation which could duplicate the plasma state of solar flare activity and all the nuances the charged particles undergo during different conditions. “Our answer was very surprising,” stated Eyink. “Magnetic flux-freezing no longer holds true when the plasma becomes turbulent. Most physicists expected that flux-freezing would play an even larger role as the plasma became more highly conducting and more turbulent, but, as a matter of fact, it breaks down completely. In an even greater surprise, we found that the motion of the magnetic field lines becomes completely random. I do not mean ‘chaotic,’ but instead as unpredictable as quantum mechanics. Rather than flowing in an orderly, deterministic fashion, the magnetic field lines instead spread out like a roiling plume of smoke.”

Of course, other solar experts feel there may be alternative answers for this rule-breaking activity within solar flares, but as Eyink says, “I think we made a pretty compelling case that turbulence alone can account for field-line breaking.”

What is most exciting is the collaborative effort of the team members from such widely varied disciplines. It was a group effort which aided Eyink to come up with this new theory on the solar flare riddle. “We used ground-breaking new database methods, like those employed in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, combined with high-performance computing techniques and original mathematical developments,” he said. “The work required a perfect marriage of physics, mathematics and computer science to develop a fundamentally new approach to performing research with very large datasets.”

In conclusion, Eyink noted this type of research work may very well give us a better understanding of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. As we know, this type of dangerous “space weather” can be harmful to astronauts, disrupt communications satellites, and even be responsible for the shut-down of electrical power grids on Earth. And you know what that means… no satellite TV and no power to watch it by. But, that’s O.K.

“I don’t stay out late. Don’t care to go. I’m home about eight… Just me and my radio. Ain’t misbehavin’.. Savin’ my love for you.”

Original Story Source: Johns Hopkins University News Release.