A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday, carrying four of NASA's science satellites that were designed to investigate a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection.
Magnetic reconnection commonly occurs throughout the universe and is known to be a catalyst of some of the solar system's most powerful explosions but remains poorly understood.
Earth and other planets, galaxies, black holes, stars and other celestial objects generate magnetic fields. Once the field lines disconnect and reconnect, charged particles are disbursed into space at a speed comparable to the speed of light or about 186,000 miles per second.
"Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect, disconnect and reconfigure explosively, releasing bursts of energy that can reach the order of billions of megatons of trinitrotoluene (commonly known as TNT)," NASA explained of the phenomenon in a news release about the mission. "These explosions can send particles surging through space near the speed of light."
In the case of the sun, magnetic reconnection releases solar flares, which can be as powerful as a million atomic bombs each and can trigger magnetic storms on our planet.
In its statement, the U.S. space agency said that the successful launch of the four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft into Earth's orbit marks the first space mission to study magnetic reconnection with scientists anticipating that the mission will give the first three-dimensional views of reconnection that occur in the magnetosphere of the Earth, our planet's protective magnetic space environment.
Over the following weeks, scientists and engineers from NASA will deploy antennas and booms on the aircraft and test all of the instruments. The observatories will also be placed into a pyramid formation to prepare for the science observations that are set to start in September later this year.
Besides giving scientists a better understanding of magnetic reconnection, the mission is also expected to provide insights into the powerful phenomena that can disrupt technological systems such as GPS navigation, electric power grids and communication networks.
Scientists may also be able to understand the process as it occurs elsewhere, such as in the atmosphere of stars and the sun, vicinity of neutron stars and black holes as well as in the boundary of the heliopshere of our solar system and interstellar space by conducting a study of the phenomenon in a local and natural laboratory.