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NASA launched four identical spacecraft Thursday on a billion-dollar mission to study the explosive give-and-take between the magnetic fields of our planet and the sun. The uncrewed Atlas 5 rocket — and NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft — soared into a clear late-night sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, right on time, to cheers and applause.
The quartet of MMS observatories will be placed into an oblong orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles into the magnetosphere — nearly halfway to the moon at one point. They will fly in pyramid formation, between 6 miles and 250 miles apart, to provide 3-D views of magnetic reconnection on the smallest of scales.
Magnetic reconnection is what happens when magnetic fields like those around Earth and the sun come together, break apart, then come together again, releasing vast energy. This repeated process drives the aurora, as well as solar storms that can disrupt communications and power on Earth. Data from this two-year mission should help scientists better understand space weather.
Each observatory resembles a giant octagonal wheel, stretching more than 11 feet across and 4 feet high, and weighing 3,000 pounds apiece. Once the long, sensor-laden booms are extended in a few days, each spacecraft could span a baseball field. Primary science-gathering will begin this summer, following a five-month checkout.