NASA AMES RESEARCH CENTER (CBS SF) — Earth and the Sun may be 93 million miles apart, but cosmic explosions between the two celestial spheres occur often and with devastating effects–unleashing waves of X-ray radiation and disrupting GPS communications, and it is with this danger in mind that next month, NASA will launch four “Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission” satellites, studying these “magnetic reconnections” and better predicting the consequences of these cosmic phenomena.
NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View uses supercomputers to create theoretical models of the magnetic fields on the sun, but the new mission will be able to actually observe what is happening, from a lofty vantage point `far above the Earth’s pole.
The mysterious magnetic reconnections actually transfer energy and physical particles from the Sun to Earth. The forces at work can accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light, with devastating consequences.
In October 2003, a massive release of X-ray radiation hit Earth in what became known as the Halloween Storms. The energy triggered the first ever radiation warning to aircraft, alerting pilots that high altitude flights could expose passengers and crew to unhealthy levels of radiation.
Simultaneously, the GPS location system was impacted. Back then, this wasn’t as great a concern for the general public. It mainly affected the military, pilots, and sea captains, but were the same event to occur today, it may be much more noticeable with today’s smartphone world where everything we do is geo-tagged and coordinated using the GPS signals. In the future, it could evven impact autonomous self-driving vehicles and airborne drones that rely on GPS.
Karen C. Fox from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland writes, “Understanding vast systems in space requires understanding what’s happening on widely different scales. Giant events can turn out to have tiny drivers — take, for example, what rocked near-Earth space in October 2003.”
The Halloween geomagnetic storms had a beautiful side too. The Northern Lights were visible clear down to Southern California, and even Texas.
The Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission will be the first ever mission dedicated to studying this universal process by orbiting Earth, and passing directly through nearby magnetic reconnection regions.
WATCH WHAT MMS WILL STUDY:
“Armed with this data, scientists will have their first chance to watch magnetic reconnection from the inside, right as it’s occurring. By focusing on the small-scale process, scientists open the door to understanding what happens on larger scales throughout the universe,” wrote Fox.