The Way I See It: A long road to a perfect launch

The Way I See It

A long road to a perfect launch

The spectacular night launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission at Cape Canaveral, Fla., last month was an important one for Rice’s space science family.

MMS launched March 12 at Cape Canaveral.

For those of us who put in a substantial part of our careers in dreaming up the mission (it arose from a workshop 25 years ago), to getting it into NASA’s strategic plan, then into the NASA budget, then made into a proposal opportunity that our Rice-alumni-led team won, and finally into detailed design, fabrication and testing, it was a long road that culminated in a perfect launch.

And now the real business of the mission begins.

MMS comprises four identical, disc-shaped spacecraft, each about 13 feet in diameter, to study Earth’s magnetosphere, the bubble-shaped region around our planet that is dominated by Earth’s magnetic field. MMS is specifically designed to study “magnetic reconnection,” a process that taps the energy stored in a magnetic field and converts it –typically explosively — into heat and kinetic energy. This work is significant because it will teach us some important physics that could help us better predict how solar storms will impact Earth.

For decades, Rice has been a leading player in creating models that forecast how geomagnetic storms will impact Earth. We call this “space weather”; major events are caused by solar flares and the blasts of plasma they erupt. To forecast space weather today, we use upstream satellites like the Advanced Composition Explorer and the new Deep Space Climate Observatory to measure the solar wind and the magnetic field imbedded in it. Our models use that data in a neural network to predict how the magnetosphere will respond to the solar wind, and we’ve gotten very good at interpreting this data and using it to forecast space weather: We haven’t missed a major storm in nearly 12 years!

Since we can accurately forecast storms today, we can reliably give a few hours’ warning to satellite operators and power-grid managers about how those storms may impact Earth. But we’ve reached the limit of what we can achieve with forecasting. The next step — and this is where MMS comes in — is to develop full-blown simulations of space weather, much like the atmospheric simulations that are routinely used for weather forecasting today.

MMS's four identical spacecraft will study "magnetic reconnection" in Earth's magnetosphere.

Understanding “magnetic reconnection” is key to understanding solar flares and space weather, and MMS will help us by making the first unambiguous high-time-resolution measurements of plasma composition and of electric and magnetic fields at reconnection sites. Coupled with models from the theory team, the measurements will help us determine how reconnection produces large numbers of energetic particles.

Many Rice folks played a role in getting MMS off the ground, and a large group of us got to attend the March 12 launch at Kennedy Space Center. Following a spectacular nighttime liftoff, the four spacecraft were deployed around midnight. Not a moment too soon, as it turned out.

The magnetometers were barely extended when the “St. Patrick’s Day” solar storm hit Earth. It was the largest storm of the solar cycle by far — and one that our forecast system correctly predicted! We captured some data from that storm, but we’ll get even more next time, after the post-launch shakedown is complete.

We don’t build spacecraft hardware at Rice anymore. It is too expensive to keep the ultra-high-quality engineering and test facilities going. But our partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio is a tremendous benefit because the institute does have the facilities and staff and has won a steady string of missions to keep the critical mass going, especially because of MMS Principal Investigator Jim Burch ’68. By partnering with Southwest Research Institute, Rice faculty and staff have first-class access to the best spacecraft missions like MMS. Rice experts often help with the design and with the science justification for missions during the proposal stage, and we also lend a hand with theory, modeling and data analysis.

I am pleased that James Webster, one of the students from the University of Texas at San Antonio who participated in the instrument fabrication and testing for MMS, will be coming to Rice this fall as a graduate student to participate in the mission’s data analysis. With a deep background in the instrumentation, he should have a good running start on his research.

–Pat Reiff ’74 is co-investigator on NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice and associate director for public outreach at the Rice Space Institute.

Rice folks who attended the March 12 Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission launch included (from left) Southwest Research Institute (SWRI)'s Jim Burch '68, MMS principal investigator; former Rice staffer Bill Lewis and his wife, Laura; Cynthia Lyle '64 and SWRI's David Young '64; Pat Reiff '74, MMS co-investigator; Rice Space Institute Administrator Umbe Cantú; SWRI's Roman Gomez '07 and incoming Rice graduate student James Webster. Those not pictured include NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center's Dierdre Wendel '09, Rice Space Institute Director David Alexander and Rice Dean of Natural Sciences Peter Rossky. The MMS sits atop the Atlas V launch vehicle in the background.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.