On Thursday, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket was fired up from Cape Canaveral. It carried four immense octagonal slice-shaped capsules, which were set into orbit at a five minutes distance from each other. They are now gravitating around the Earth with increased speed, preparing to be grouped into a pyramid formation. The goal of this mission is to study magnetic reconnection, a natural process that poses a threat to communication systems on our planet.

According to a NASA report about the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, magnetic reconnection is a phenomenon provoked by the connection, disconnection and reconfiguration of magnetic fields, which leads to large explosions (whose energy release is the equivalent of billions of megatons of TNT and whose propelling force can speed particles through space nearly light-fast).

The study of magnetic reconnection could lead to a better comprehension of its effects on communications (internet, mobile phones, electrical grids, and GPS systems). Furthermore, it could deepen scholars’ understanding of the functioning of magnetic fields in space, at far distances in the outer solar system or beyond.

The first phase of the mission involves orbiting the earth following an elliptical trajectory. Each of the four spacecraft will reach a distance of 43,000 miles from the Earth while in orbit. In the second phase, this distance will increase to 95,000 miles. The space capsules will cover both the bright side of our planet, where the Sun’s magnetic field meets the Earth’s, and the dark side of the planet, where magnetic reconnection is more frequent, producing the aurora borealis and aurora australis.

Each spacecraft has arm-like appendages that extend up to 200 feet on each of its eight sides. These carry measurement instruments. The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission program manager Craig Tooley described the limbs of the spacecraft as having, each, “a footprint about the size of a football field”. Due to the mobile instruments, they will record magnetic activity over 100 times faster than any mission has done so far. The gigantic octagonal devices weight around 3,000 pounds when completely fuelled.

Scholars are very enthusiastic about the discoveries this mission might trigger. Jim Burch from the Southwest Research Institute, the principal investigator for the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, explained that “everything to do with space weather starts with reconnection”, which is why it is crucial to understand why and how it takes place. The current mission will study precisely that area around the Earth where magnetic reconnection phenomena take place. Burch is confident that this will help solve the mystery.

image source: NASA