Don't even try to guess what NASA's next
launch will deliver in technological advance, scientific understanding,
and new research possibilities.
That is mission impossible, says University of Delaware physicist William Matthaeus.
"There is no way to predict what the impact will be," he said.
No one has ever seen what scientists expect to see in the $850
million Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, after all. And no one can
imagine what the world will be like two years from now -- or 10 years.
But Matthaeus and his colleague Michael Shay are confident in this:
the mission launching Thursday night (10:44 p.m., weather permitting)
will open a treasure trove of information on the mysterious phenomenon
known as magnetic reconnection, giving scientists around the world their
first look at the actual phenomenon, not just a computer simulation or
last year were awarded
a $1.2 million, three-year NASA grant to study how energy from the sun
is transported throughout our solar system, are at Cape Canaveral
Florida, participating in a pre-launch conference. They will be among
approximately 1,000 witnesses at the site Thursday night.
NASA will provide live coverage of the launch, along with pre-launch commentary, on its web/TV site. An interview with Matthaeus and Shay is available on the University of Delaware's YouTube channel.
Both have been part of the planning process and bring internationally
recognized expertise in theoretical physics and reconnection physics to
the effort. Matthaeus is a member of NASA's MMS Theory and Modeling
Team and Shay is part of NASA's Interdisciplinary Science program.
During the mission, Shay and Matthaeus will continue their research on
the MMS Science Working Team.
The heart of the mission will take place where the sun's magnetic
field -- or magnetosphere, as such fields are called -- meets the
Earth's in the explosive process known as magnetic reconnection. Now,
scientists will see those areas as never before.
"It's really going to blow so much of what we know about the
magnetosphere wide open," said Shay, associate professor in the
Department of Physics and Astronomy.
The launch marks the culmination of more than a decade of work and
sets in motion all sorts of new projects as new, high-resolution images
are transmitted and researchers -- including those at UD -- start to
analyze extraordinary amounts of data about conditions and interactions
that occur when magnetic fields meet and break apart. The explosive
blasts that result send out enormous voltage and charged particles that
move near the speed of light.
Scientists believe that explosive process -- magnetic reconnection --
is a common phenomenon, but it is a relatively new field of study.
Previous missions found evidence of the process, but it has never been
observed or measured with the precision and speed that the MMS mission
makes possible, Shay said.
Evidence of magnetic reconnection is abundant on Earth, Matthaeus
said. It is ultimately responsible for the "auroras," the strange and
wonderful "northern light" shows, and can affect many more familiar
processes on earth, including satellite transmissions, GPS performance
and power grids. The force of the process also affects the weather in
space, and can cause damage to spacecraft and create dangers for
Understanding of the reconnection phenomenon has many implications for the future of energy, Matthaeus said.
The mission relies on four large disk-shaped spacecraft, each
equipped with 25 sensors. They will fly in formation, providing
three-dimensional views of the magnetic reconnection region and
measuring magnetic fields, electric fields, plasma, and energized
particles in the magnetosphere, according to NASA scientist Tom Moore.
The spacecraft will be in the target areas for less than a second, but
will capture data 100 times faster than any previous mission made
Between passes through the critical reconnection regions -- about 10
such passes would be considered a successful mission, Matthaeus said --
scientists will analyze the data to determine which are most important
to transmit during the brief windows of high-resolution transmission
The mission, which will last at least 2 1/2 years, will shed light on
the phenomenon wherever it occurs throughout space, including the
atmosphere of other stars, regions near black holes, neutron stars, and
the edge of the solar system.
Once the mission is fully operative, UD will have access to MMS data
within hours of its capture, Matthaeus said, and researchers in multiple
fields will have opportunity to participate in the analysis.
Space missions often inspire younger students to go into the
sciences, too, said Edmund Nowak, chair of UD's Department of Physics
and Astronomy, and that is a good match for UD's mission to promote the
study of science and prepare a workforce that has the technical ability
to work in the space sciences.
In many ways, a NASA launch has similarities to a child's graduation, Nowak said.
"These missions take so much time," he said. "When they actually materialize, you have to celebrate."