NASA has selected Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to lead its Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission to explore the plasma processes that govern the interaction of the Earth's magnetic field with the solar wind.
Similar processes occur throughout the universe and are fundamental to researchers' understanding of astrophysical and solar system plasmas.
"MMS will use four identical spacecraft, variably spaced in orbit, to make three-dimensional measurements of magnetospheric boundary regions and the process of magnetic reconnection that occurs there," says Principal Investigator Dr. James L. Burch, vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division.
Researchers need a global perspective to understand the complex processes that transport, accelerate and energize plasmas in the magnetosphere.
The first truly global measurements began with the 2000 launch of the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) spacecraft, also led by SwRI.
"MMS will complement the IMAGE concept by providing multi-point measurements in three dimensions, using updated technologies to probe the small-scale processes that drive the global dynamics," says Burch.
The most important of these processes is magnetic reconnection, which explosively converts magnetic field energy to heat and kinetic energy of charged particles. At the Earth, magnetic reconnection energizes the magnetosphere, ultimately causing the aurora and magnetic storms.
At the Sun, it causes solar flares and other energetic outbursts. Throughout the universe, it is one of the processes that accelerates high-energy cosmic rays.
SwRI is also providing a new, innovative science instrument for the mission. Institute Scientist Dr. David T. Young is leading the development of the hot plasma composition analyzer (HPCA), which makes very rapid measurements while separating minute amounts of oxygen ions from the dominant plasma population found throughout the Earth's magnetosphere.
The instrument will measure the density, velocity and temperature of all ion species in the plasma with unprecedented accuracy while requiring minimal mass and power.
SwRI applied internal research funds for the development of HPCA. SwRI will also provide the central instrument data processor for the spacecraft.
For this mission, SwRI is partnering with the University of New Hampshire, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
A number of U.S. and international scientists from other universities and institutions are also participating. The science payload and analysis of its data are expected to cost $140 million. Launch of the $700 million mission is scheduled for July 2013.
Cu-Boulder To Receive $12 Mln To Participate In Solar Space Mission
The team from CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics will be part of NASA's Magnetospheric MultiScale mission, or MMS, spearheaded by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
LASP will help design, fabricate and test components for the SMART experiment, a suite of instruments slated to launch on MMS in 2013 and gather data on processes that transport, accelerate and energize plasmas in Earth's magnetosphere.
The SMART experiment on MMS will study the physical processes that occur when plasma streaming from the sun triggers outbursts like electromagnetic storms that can affect orbiting spacecraft as well as power grids on Earth, said LASP Professor Robert Ergun, who is leading the CU effort.
Related processes like solar and stellar flares permeate the universe and are responsible for many fundamental astrophysical processes, but relatively little is known about them, he said.
"CU-Boulder has been selected to play a fairly significant role in the science of this mission, and we are happy about that," said Ergun.
"Ultimately, we think missions like this will help scientists better understand how the universe functions in a fundamental way."
More than a dozen faculty, researchers and students at LASP, the astrophysical and planetary science department and the physics department will be involved in the MMS mission, said Ergun.
The MMS mission will begin with the simultaneous launch of four disk-shaped satellites resembling "flying porcupines," each about three feet high and seven feet in diameter with extensive instrumentation and protruding antennas, said Ergun.
The SMART experiment will use the sophisticated antennas to gather data on the processes occurring in the electrified plasma, which will be sent to LASP's Space Technology Building, archived and distributed to scientists around the world, including researchers at CU-Boulder.
Plasma physics has a number of applications in the world today, ranging from plasma televisions and fluorescent lights to ion engines used to power interplanetary spacecraft, said Ergun. "There are probably a whole bunch of applications in the future we just haven't thought of yet," he said.
LASP Director Daniel Baker will participate in the energetic particle experiment on the MMS mission.
Baker has been involved in a number of NASA missions studying the interactions of the sun and Earth during his career. The science operations for MMS will be coordinated by Randy Davis, the mission operations director at LASP.
The magnetosphere is the region above the Earth's atmosphere encompassing the planet's magnetic field, which frequently is battered by violent space weather disruptive to spacecraft and Earth communications.
According to NASA officials at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the MMS mission is expected to help scientists better understand the effects of the sun on Earth, the solar system and the space environment frequented by astronauts.
NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probe program
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NASA Selects Magnetospheric Multiscale Instrument Suite Team
San Antonio TX (SPX) May 04, 2005
NASA has selected the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) Instrument Suite team led by Dr. James L. Burch of Southwest Research Institute (SRI), San Antonio, to work with the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) MMS Project in mission formulation.
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