NASA bid to solve magnetic mystery

NASA bid to solve magnetic mystery

Nasa has launched four identical spacecraft on a billion-dollar mission to study the explosive give-and-take of the Earth and sun’s magnetic fields.

The unmanned Atlas rocket – and Nasa’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft - soared into a clear late-night sky, right on time, to cheers and applause.

The quartet of observatories will be placed into an oblong orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles into the magnetosphere – nearly halfway to the moon at one point.

They will fly in pyramid formation, between six miles and 250 miles apart, to provide 3D views of magnetic reconnection on the smallest of scales.

Magnetic reconnection is what happens when magnetic fields like those around Earth and the sun come together, break apart, then come together again, releasing vast energy.

This repeated process drives the aurora, as well as solar storms that can disrupt communications and power on Earth. Data from this two-year mission should help scientists better understand so-called space weather.

Each observatory resembles a giant octagonal wheel, stretching more than 11 feet across and four feet high. They are numbered and stacked like tires on top of the rocket, with No 4 popping free first more than an hour after lift-off, followed every five minutes by another.

Once the long, sensor-laden booms are extended in a few days, each spacecraft could span a baseball field.

Principal investigator Jim Burch, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said measurements will be made down to the electron scale, significantly smaller than previous heliophysics missions.In all, there are 100 science sensors.

Primary science-gathering will begin this summer, following a five-month checkout.

The findings from the $1.1bn mission will be useful in understanding magnetic reconnection throughout the universe. Closer to home, space weather scientists along with everyone on Earth hopefully will benefit.

“We’re not setting out here to solve space weather,” Mr Burch said. “We’re setting out to learn the fundamental features of magnetic reconnection because that’s what drives space weather.”

More in this Section

Cold kitten stuck on roof rescued and warmed up by firefightersCold kitten stuck on roof rescued and warmed up by firefighters

Scientists identify Covid-19 testing method that delivers result in 25 minutesScientists identify Covid-19 testing method that delivers result in 25 minutes

Democrats’ convention delayed due to coronavirus pandemicDemocrats’ convention delayed due to coronavirus pandemic

New Nightingale Hospital in London prepares to admit first Covid-19 patientsNew Nightingale Hospital in London prepares to admit first Covid-19 patients


Lifestyle

Much has been said about the perils of being stuck in the house 24/7, like family pets interrupting your important conference calls, your partner leaving their dirty dishes everywhere and the lack of respite from the kids.Silver lining: Seven enforced money-saving habits you might want to continue after lockdown

Put you and your loved ones' pop-culture knowledge to the test with Arts Editor Des O'Driscoll's three fiendishly fun quiz rounds.Scene and Heard: the Arts Ed's family entertainment quiz

A passion for heritage and the discovery of some nifty new software has resulted in an Irish architect putting colour on thousands of old photographs, writes Marjorie BrennanBringing the past to life

Richard Hogan, family psychotherapist, addresses a reader's question about life during lockdownHolding on: how to help your child through the crisis

More From The Irish Examiner