The spectacular night launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in March 2015, was an important one for Rice’s space science family.

For those of us who put in a substantial part of our careers in dreaming up the mission (it arose from a workshop 25 years ago), to getting it into NASA’s strategic plan, then into the NASA budget, then made into a proposal opportunity that our Rice alumni-led team won, and finally into detailed design, fabrication and testing, it was a long road that culminated in a perfect launch.

And now the real business of the mission begins.

MMS comprises four identical, disc-shaped spacecraft, each about 13 feet in diameter, to study Earth’s magnetosphere — the bubble-shaped region around our planet that is dominated by Earth’s magnetic field. MMS is specifically designed to study “magnetic reconnection,” a process that taps the energy stored in a magnetic field and converts it — typically explosively — into heat and kinetic energy. This work is significant because it will teach us some important physics that could help us better predict how solar storms will impact Earth.

For decades, Rice has been a leading player in creating models that forecast how geomagnetic storms will impact Earth. We call this “space weather”; major events are caused by solar flares and the blasts of plasma they erupt. To forecast space weather today, we use upstream satellites like the Advanced Composition Explorer and the new Deep Space Climate Observatory to measure the solar wind and the magnetic field imbedded in it. Our models use that data in a neural network to predict how the magnetosphere will respond to the solar wind, and we’ve gotten very good at interpreting this data and using it to forecast space weather: We haven’t missed a major storm in nearly 12 years!

Since we can accurately forecast storms today, we can reliably give a few hours’ warning to satellite operators and power-grid managers about how those storms may impact Earth. But we’ve reached the limit of what we can achieve with forecasting. The next step — and this is where MMS comes in — is to develop full-blown simulations of space weather, much like the atmospheric simulations that are routinely used for weather forecasting today.

Understanding magnetic reconnection is key to understanding solar flares and space weather, and MMS will help us by making the first unambiguous high-time resolution measurements of plasma composition and of electric and magnetic fields at reconnection sites. Coupled with models from the theory team, the measurements will help us determine how reconnection produces large numbers of energetic particles.

Many Rice folks played a role in getting MMS off the ground, and a large group of us got to attend the March 12 launch at Kennedy Space Center. Following a spectacular nighttime liftoff, the four spacecraft were deployed around midnight. Not a moment too soon, as it turned out.

The magnetometers were barely extended when the St. Patrick’s Day solar storm hit Earth. It was the largest storm of the solar cycle by far — and one that our forecast system correctly predicted. We captured some data from that storm, but we’ll get even more next time, after the postlaunch shakedown is complete.

We don’t build spacecraft hardware at Rice anymore. It is too expensive to keep the ultra-high-quality engineering and test facilities going. But our partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio is a tremendous benefit because the institute has the facilities and staff and has won a steady string of missions to keep the critical mass going, especially because of Jim Burch ’68, MMS principal investigator. By partnering with Southwest Research Institute, Rice faculty and staff have first-class access to the best spacecraft missions like MMS.  Read more:

—Pat Reiff ’74

Pat Reiff is co-investigator on NASA’s MMS mission, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice, and associate director for public outreach at the Rice Space Institute.