(CBS SF) — NASA is launching a fleet of spacecraft Thursday to investigate the mystery behind a cosmic phenomenon in the Earth’s magnetic field just as the sun unleashed its first massive flare of the year.
The Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS, will be the first-ever mission to study magnetic reconnection — the explosive event that can send powerful bursts of particles hurling toward Earth with the potential to damage satellites, power grids and people.
This little understood process is also responsible for the auroras near the Earth’s pole.
One day before NASA plans to launch four satellites to help scientists understand what triggers these magnetic reconnection, the sun unleashed a strong Earth-directed solar flare.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured video of the X-class solar flare, the strongest category of sun storms possible, right as it erupted.
However, the beta-gamma-delta magnetic field this particular sunspot developed is unstable to the kind of explosive magnetic reconnection NASA will study using its MMS fleet, according to Space Weather News.
It’s unknown if the flare will disrupt the MMS mission this NASA video explains in detail.
“[MMS] is going to actually fly in Earth’s magnetosphere, this protective magnetic environment around the Earth,” Jeff Newmark, interim director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said in a Feb. 25 briefing. “We’re using this environment around the Earth as a natural laboratory. Rather than building one on Earth, we’re going to where magnetic reconnection actually occurs in space so we can understand it.”
You can watch the MMS satellite launch Thursday, with NASA’s webcast beginning at 5 p.m. PST (8 p.m. EST). Liftoff is set for 7:44 p.m. PST (10:44 p.m. EST).