Engineering 101

Video of the Day: NASA spacecraft gets inside a magnetic reconnection event

Imagine sending sensors inside of a hurricane to capture all of the data from the middle of the storm? That’s what it was like for four NASA  Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft when they landed right in the middle of an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection.

The four MMS spacecraft. (image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab)
The four MMS spacecraft. (image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab)

The MMS spacecraft fly in a pyramid formation to create a full 3D map of any phenomena observed. On October 16, 2015, the spacecraft traveled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth’s magnetic field bumps up against the sun’s magnetic field, instead of around it.

Magnetic reconnection is one of the main causes of space radiation and therefore of interest to researchers who want to learn more about the space environment and protect spacecraft and astronauts.

When the spacecraft got caught in the middle, the acquired research showed that magnetic reconnection is driven by the physics of electrons.

“The data showed the entire process of magnetic reconnection to be fairly orderly and elegant,” said Michael Hesse, a space scientist at Goddard who first developed the crescent model. “There doesn’t seem to be much turbulence present, or at least not enough to disrupt or complicate the process.”

As the mission continues, the formation of the MMS spacecraft can be adjusted to capture better views of electron paths and proton paths. Each set of observations will contribute to deciphering the mysterious aspects of magnetic reconnection.

Video Credit: NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein

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