UNH Space Scientists Reach Milestone In NASA Sun-Earth Mission
By David Sims, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
December 19, 2007
Artist's conception of the four MMS spacecraft. Courtesy of NASA.
Scientists, engineers, and technicians at UNH’s Space Science Center
learned recently that the next phase of a large and complex NASA mission
they have been working on for several years will now proceed to the next
NASA administrator Michael Griffin gave the go-ahead to the space agency’s
Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, meaning that the cast of participants,
including those at UNH, can move from the design phase and begin building
instruments for the four-satellite mission. UNH has been awarded $61 million
from NASA for its role in the mission, which will study little-understood,
fundamental processes of Earth’s magnetosphere – the comet-shaped
magnetic shield that protects the Earth from solar and cosmic radiation.
“This decision propels us forward into the busiest engineering phase
of the mission,” says Roy Torbert, director of the Space Science Center
within the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at UNH and
the university’s principal investigator for the mission. Torbert adds, “This
is where the engineering and the science come together for this exciting
As part of an international team from 12 institutions, over the next several
years UNH scientists, engineers, graduate and undergraduate students will
help construct two Electron Drift Instruments for each of the four spacecraft.
An EDI is designed to measure electric fields and electron drifts using a
controlled beam of electrons. In addition, UNH will construct the central
electronic controls for all the instruments being built to measure the spectrum
of electromagnetic fields around the spacecraft. This “FIELDS” instrument
suite will be comprised of six sensors per spacecraft and will be centrally
managed by UNH.
The mission is designed to explore the plasma processes that govern the
interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with the highly charged solar
wind. Plasma is a highly ionized gas sometimes described as the fourth state
of matter. Plasmas occupy 99 percent of the observable universe and the physics
of plasmas is key to understanding many violent processes throughout the
One of those processes is magnetic reconnection, in which magnetic fields
reconfigure themselves and release enormous amounts of energy. However, only
around the Earth’s magnetosphere can direct measurements of reconnection
be easily made. Reconnection, a main focus of the MMS mission, is the basic
mechanism by which energy from the Sun and the solar wind is transferred
into the Earth’s magnetospheric system.
Reconnection is widely believed to play a crucial role in space and astrophysical
phenomena such as magnetospheric substorms and solar flares. It is a crucial
process to understand in order to be able to predict “space weather” conditions.
For example, a blast of this energy from substorms or solar flares can affect
satellites, Earth-based instruments and power grids; shower astronauts and
aircraft flying over the Earth’s poles with deadly radiation; and light
up the sky with aurora.
In 2005, UNH received the largest, single research award in the history
of the institution, $38 million from NASA, to build instruments for MMS.
The NASA award to UNH has now increased to just over $61 million to, among
other aspects of the mission, accommodate post-launch operations that will
be carried out by SSC scientists, engineers, and technicians.
The MMS mission is managed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which
will build the four spacecraft and the inter-spacecraft ranging and communication
system. Southwest Research Institute leads the science investigation and
development of the instrument suite together with numerous partners including
UNH, NASA GSFC, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, University
of Colorado, and international partners in Austria, Sweden, France and Japan.
Launch for the MMS mission is currently planned for 2014.