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PPPL data may play role in first NASA space probe dedicated to magnetic reconnection

At 10:44 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, NASA launched the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS), a set of four spacecraft that will study the magnetic fields surrounding Earth. Sent into space aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, the craft mark the first NASA mission dedicated to investigating magnetic reconnection, a mysterious phenomenon that gives rise to the northern lights, solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt cell phone service, black out power grids and damage orbiting satellites.

The 2.5-year mission may employ data provided by PPPL, which operates the Magnetic Reconnection Experiment (MRX), the world’s leading laboratory facility for studying reconnection. Results of the MRX research could elucidate the space probes’ findings, said Masaaki Yamada, principal investigator of the MRX project.

Reconnection takes place when the magnetic field lines in plasma merge and snap apart with violent force. But NASA is flying blind in a sense when seeking such events, since mission operators don't know precisely where reconnection will occur in space or what the data it produces will look like. And since the explosive events occur in milliseconds, the MMS craft, orbiting in tight formation at an average speed of some 20,000 miles per hour, will have only fleeting moments to detect and measure the phenomena.

The MRX data could facilitate such detection. Comparing the data with signals from space will enable instruments aboard the craft to spot actual instances of reconnection taking place. "In space, you come across magnetic reconnection by chance," said Hantao Ji, a Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences who works with Yamada on the MRX. "In the Lab, however, the environment is carefully controlled so we know exactly when and where reconnection happens."

NASA scientists are aware of the Laboratory’s findings. "I talk with the MRX guys at PPPL a lot and they have made some fundamental discoveries," said Jim Burch, principal investigator for the $1.1 billion MMS mission. "Up until now it's been a one-way street since we haven't collected any space data. But once we do that I definitely would like to make use of the MRX data."

Better understanding of magnetic reconnection could lead to better methods of defending mankind's electrical infrastructure from powerful reconnection events, as well as a clearer understanding of the universe's physical processes. And since reconnection can also take place in, and drain energy from, fusion plasmas such those in PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment, increased understanding can lead to better control of fusion reactions that researchers are studying as a clean fuel for generating electricity.

Results of the MMS mission could also be used to validate computer simulations of magnetic reconnection that are being performed at PPPL. Among those attending the launch in person last week was Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of the PPPL Theory Department and co-director of the Princeton Center for Heliospheric Physics, which is developing a computer code to model as precisely as possible the role of reconnection in geomagnetic storms.

“The lift-off was spectacular,” said Bhattacharjee, who watched the launch from a set of bleachers. “It is amazing that the entire mission is dedicated to understanding the physics of reconnection, and that is an opportunity of a lifetime for many.”

Data from the mission could further prove useful for the next generation of MRX called Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment, or FLARE, with Ji as principal investigator. When completed in 2016, the powerful new PPPL device will enable scientists to better replicate reconnection in nature. Such findings could then be compared with results of NASA’s MMS probes for the benefit of both the Earth-bound and space projects.

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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