Why exactly 4 years ago did NASA shoot the night sky of Cape Canaveral with the Atlas V rocket?

Published on March 12, 2019

Why exactly 4 years ago did NASA shoot the night sky of Cape Canaveral with the Atlas V rocket?

    On March 12, 2015, another NASA mission to study the dynamics of the Earth’s magnetic field started from Cape Canaveral. This time, the subject of research was the process of reconnecting magnetic field lines .

    As a result of the bombardment of the Earth by charged particles from the side of the Sun, the lines of force of our mother’s magnetic field can undergo discontinuities and reconnections, which causes huge bursts of energy that are reflected in the atmosphere in the form of beautiful aurors .

    In order to better understand the physics of this process, NASA, with the money of American taxpayers, hovers the sky with expensive equipment. To you, in order to immerse yourself in the topic, just look under the cat.

    Onboard Atlas V there were 4 mission satellites called Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS), the main purpose of which is to study the phenomenon of reconnection of the lines of force of the magnetic field of the Sun in the Earth’s magnetosphere, the result of which is a rather dangerous explosive process, expressed as the discharge of charged particles, which may damage operational vehicles in orbit.

    This mission is one of a kind dealing with this issue. Its remarkable feature is the geometric choreography of the position of the satellites relative to each other. In order for the equipment to be able to collect adequate data, the satellites must form a regular pyramid in the way of the phenomenon unfolding in front of the cold eyes of space wanderers.


    Magnetic fields can be found in every corner of the universe. Planets, stars, galaxies, black holes and many other bodies create magnetic fields that wrap around their creators or roam freely around the surrounding space.

    Attached by one end to the positively charged side and the other to the negatively charged, the magnetic field lines are usually closed and form loops. But sometimes a line breaks and then closes into a new loop. The rupture and closure of these lines releases a large amount of energy, accelerating the surrounding charged particles to speeds close to the speed of light.

    Quoting the words of Jim Burch, the chief MMS researcher, said on March 10, 2015:
    How exactly the magnetic line breaks and then closes is a completely unknown process
    When a similar phenomenon occurs with the magnetic lines of the Sun, solar flares occur, which send a massive piece of the solar atmosphere into outer space on a free-floating basis, sometimes directly to Earth. This event is called the ejection of coronal masses and is a rather dangerous phenomenon that can cause significant problems with electronics on Earth and damage satellites in orbit.

    The reconnection of magnetic lines also occurs much closer to the Earth: the magnetic lines of the Sun from time to time reach the Earth's magnetic lines. This is a catalyst for the redistribution of magnetic lines and as a result of their reconnection.

    In most cases, the consequence of this process is a stream of charged particles directed toward the Earth's atmosphere, which generates one of the most spectacular events on Earth - the northern lights. But this same effect is also the cause of geomagnetic storms, which are a source of strong electromagnetic waves that can destroy electronics and cause a blackout.

    With the help of the MMS mission, humanity wants to understand how this beautiful and dangerous phenomenon is constructed at the same time.

    Move on to the details

    • Mission value: $ 1.1 billion
    • Weight of each satellite: 1.36 tons
    • The packed size of each satellite: Octagonal shape (regular octagon) 1.2 meters high, 3.65 meters wide
    • Launch Packing Method: Wedding Cake
    • Size in working condition of each satellite: 28.65 meters high, 120.7 meters wide

    Impressive, right?


    In orbit, the satellites formed a pyramid, located at a distance of 10 km from each other, to compile a 3d image of the process under study. Each satellite has a GPS module that provides positioning accuracy of up to 100 meters.

    Mission apparatuses collect data in places where the probability of detecting such events is maximized - on the Sun-Earth line at the magnetopause .

    What is the result

    A year after the launch of the mission, the first re-closure event was recorded. Flying in the immediate vicinity of the reconnected lines in the so-called dissipation region, the satellites detected the event itself and the flow of charged particles, rushing in a straight line from the event at a speed of thousands of kilometers per second, breaking through the Earth’s magnetic field, which usually holds them. As soon as the particles pass through the magnetic barrier, they rotate 180 degrees, which signals the formation of new magnetic lines after the old ones were destroyed by the sun.

    These results are completely consistent with computer simulations.

    Since the launch, MMS has flown through these regions in the Earth’s magnetic field thousands of times, each time collecting information about the dynamics of the lines of force of the Earth’s magnetic field. After the first direct observation of this phenomenon, about a dozen similar cases were recorded, which gave more data to study this fundamental phenomenon.