Journal Science publishes results from MMS satellite mission

Thursday, November 15, 2018
Artist depiction of MMS satellites

Artist depiction of the MMS spacecraft that provided the first view of magnetic reconnection. Credit: NASA/GSFC

Researchers at UNH have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving “magnetic reconnection” — the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion — in the Earth’s magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet. The findings, published in the journal Science, advance our understanding of these solar events that spark auroras and could wreak havoc on power grids.

Roy Torbert
Roy Torbert, professor of physics and deputy principal investigator for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission. Credit: Scott Ripley, UNH.

Magnetic reconnection has remained a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can have, but they haven’t completely understood the details. In this study, the scientists outline the first views of the critical details of how this energy conversion process works in the Earth’s magnetotail.


“This was a remarkable event,” said lead author Roy Torbert of the Space Science Center at UNH and deputy principal investigator for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS. “We have long known that it occurs in two types of regimes, asymmetric and symmetric, but this is the first time we have seen a symmetric process.”

Magnetic reconnection occurs around Earth every day due to magnetic field lines twisting and reconnecting. It happens in different ways in different places, with different effects. Particles in highly ionized gases, called plasmas, can be converted and cause a single powerful explosion, just a fraction of a second long, that can lead to strong streams of electrons flying away at supersonic speeds. The view, which was detected as part of the scientists’ work on the MMS mission, had enough resolution to reveal its differences from other reconnection regimes around the planet like the asymmetric process found in the magnetopause around Earth which is closer to the sun.

“The more we know and understand about these reconnections, the more we can prepare for extreme events that are possible from reconnections around the Earth or anywhere in the universe.”

“This is important because the more we know and understand about these reconnections,” said Torbert, a professor of physics at UNH, “the more we can prepare for extreme events that are possible from reconnections around the Earth or anywhere in the universe.”

Magnetic reconnection also happens on the sun and across the universe — in all cases forcefully shooting out particles and driving much of the change we see in dynamic space environments — so learning about it around Earth also helps us understand reconnection in other places in the universe which cannot be reached by spacecraft. The more we understand about different types of magnetic reconnection, the more we can piece together what such explosions might look like elsewhere.

For the first reported asymmetrical event on Oct. 16, 2015, and now this symmetrical event on July 11, 2017, NASA's MMS mission made history by flying through magnetic reconnection events near the Earth. The four MMS spacecrafts launched from a single rocket were only inside the events for a few seconds, but the instruments which UNH researchers helped to develop were able to gather data at an unprecedented speed of one hundred times faster than ever before. As a result, for the first time, scientists could track the way the magnetic fields changed, new electric fields presented, as well as the speeds and direction of the various charged particles.

Space Science Center researchers Matthew Argall, Charles Farrugia, Ivan Dors, Hans Vaith, Christoforos Mouikis and Akhtar Ardakani were among the co-authors of this study. This work was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

GIF of magnetic reconnection

In its second phase, NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) is watching magnetic reconnection in action behind the Earth, as shown here by the tangled blue and red magnetic field lines. Credit: Patricia Reiff/NASA Goddard/Joy Ng