Matthaeus and Shay to witness long-awaited launch of NASA research mission
March 11, 2015 - 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 laboratory experiment.
Matthaeus and Shay, who 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 astronauts.
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 possible.
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 capacity.
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."
Article by Beth Miller
Photo by Evan Krape