By Ian Cameron, Contributing Writer
An Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 12 and marked the beginning of the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to study magnetic reconnection, culminating over a decade of hard work by physicists, engineers, technicians and students at the University of New Hampshire Earth Oceans and Space Science Center.
According to NASA’s website, magnetic reconnection is a little understood process that occurs in space in which magnetic fields connect and disconnect and explosively transfer energy. It is this process which can create solar flares and sends radiation towards the Earth, which creates the aurora borealis and can have an effect on GPS navigation, radio communications, and even the electrical grid.
“Three, two, one, zero…and liftoff of Atlas V with MMS…using magnetic reconnection to fill in the pieces of the puzzle of space weather,” Marty Malinowski, United Launch Alliance Atlas V Flight Commentator, said as the rocket blasted into space.
The unmanned flight is carrying four identical satellites which will fly together in a quartet through the Earth’s magnetic and electrical fields and study the dynamics and structure of magnetic reconnection.
This is the first mission in which the study of magnetic reconnection is the flight’s sole purpose. The satellites will fly through magnetic reconnection “hot spots” in Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic field sur- -rounding Earth.
The satellites are designed to collect data extremely fast: They will fly through these regions in under a second.
UNH partnered with several other institutions and organizations across the country (and globe) to design and assemble instruments for the satellites.
UNH was the lead on the FIELDS instruments, which are designed to measure the electric and magnetic fields in the magnetosphere, according to Ivan Dors, a FIELDS Systems Engineer.
According to Senior Research Project Engineer Mark Granoff, the UNH team built more than a hundred printed circuit boards and nearly a thousand mechanical parts, as well as four Central Electronic Boxes (CEB), eight EDI Gun Detector Units, and 16 SDP Wire Boom Instruments.
“SDP is the Spinplane Double Probe, which measures the electric field using four 60-meter deployable booms per spacecraft,” Dors stated. “EDI is the Electron Drift Instrument. This instrument has two Gun-Detector Units per spacecraft.”
The Gun-Detector Units use a beam of electrons, which are then reflected back to measure the magnetic fields in the area around the spacecraft. The Central Electronic Boxes are essential in the functioning of the SDP and EDI units.
UNH has accumulated approximately $79 million in grants from NASA for the research, design, assembly and testing of instruments for the spacecraft.
“UNH has a long and very successful history of space science missions and the Space Science Center has a very good reputation for producing quality instrumentation on schedule and on budget,” said David Rau, also a FIELDS systems engineer.
Roy Torbert, the FIELDS Instrument Suite Principal Investigator (PI) and MMS Mission Co-Investigator, flew down to Cape Canaveral with Granoff, Rau, Dors and other UNH team members to witness the launch firsthand.
“I had an extreme sense of accomplishment and relief once the rocket performed nominally and all the observatories were separated in orbit as intended,” Rau said. “Many people teared up and cheered as the countdown approached T-0 and the launch commenced.”
The rocket cut a red swath through an otherwise clear night, and within a few short minutes it was hurtling nearly horizontal to the Earth at over 12,000 mph.
“…I was able to see the pride of my father and my 2-year-old son’s face light up with excitement while the dark sky was illuminated by the rocket’s fire. That is my best memory of the launch,” Dors stated.
Although UNH finished designing instruments for the MMS mission, the team at the Space Science Center will still be heavily involved. The mission is set to last for the next 36 months, although it may be extended depending on funding and success of the mission.
“It’s been a great experience, very taxing but very fulfilling,” Granoff stated. “We will all be better off for the research they are conducting.”