The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are being readied for launch on a mission to study the magnetic field of the Earth. This will be the first mission specifically designed to measure magnetic reconnections around the planet.

Magnetic reconnection involves lines of magnetic force connecting with each other and breaking apart, releasing vast quantities of energy. This occurs in the space around the Earth, as well as above the surface of the Sun.

"Magnetic reconnection is one of the most important drivers of space weather events. Eruptive solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms all involve the release, through reconnection, of energy stored in magnetic fields. Space weather events can affect modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids," Jeff Newmark, interim director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA, said.

The four identical MMS spacecraft are scheduled for launch at 10:44 p.m. EDT on March 12, from Cape Canaveral. The network of satellites will fly together, in close formation, in order to carry out their mission. The vehicles will begin science operations in September, providing the first 3D images of magnetic reconnection, with resolution great enough to study the events as they take place.

When magnetic fields combine, they produce energy which is seen in acceleration of particles, as well as thermal radiation. This can cause problems which can affect satellites and other electronic communication devices.

The processes which drive the reconnections remains a mystery to astronomers. Researchers hope the new network of observatories will help answer questions about the process. Although observations will be carried out close to the Earth, researchers hope that their findings could help astronomers understand how the same process could take place near the Sun, as well as in regions surrounding distant black holes.

"MMS engineers have completed final observatory closeout procedures and checks and are awaiting transport to the launch pad tomorrow for integration with the Atlas rocket. The team is in high spirits and ready to get these technological marvels in space," Craig Tooley, project manager for the MMS mission at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said.

The Dscovr satellite was launched on February 11, on a mission to explore and measure space weather. However, that observatory will only be able to measure activity taking place above the Sun and the Earth, while MMS could discover how magnetic reconnections take place. This difference may be thought of like a weatherman delivering forecasts, compared to a meteorologist studying how clouds, the atmosphere, land, and water all combine to produce weather conditions.

In October 2003, a burst of X-rays from the Sun triggered the first-ever radiation warning for pilots flying at high altitudes. This occurrence highlights the need for additional research which could assist in predicting such events.

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