The Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission is scheduled to launch into space on March 12, 2015. The mission consists of four spacecraft to observe a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection — which doesn’t happen naturally on Earth all that often, but is a regular occurrence in space. At the heart of magnetic reconnection is a fundamental physics process in which magnetic field lines come together and explosively realign, often sending the particles in the area flying off near the speed of light.
The process may sound a bit abstract, but it is at the heart of some very concrete events in space. Take, for example, a giant explosion on the sun that occurred on July 12, 2012, causing colorful aurora and space weather near Earth a few days later. Magnetic reconnection catalyzed numerous events along the way.
It all began at 12:11 p.m. EDT on July 12, 2012, when magnetic reconnection in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, led to a solar flare. Scientists don’t yet know exactly what sets off one of these gigantic explosions of light and x-rays, but they know that magnetic reconnection – initiated in areas of complex and intense magnetic fields on the sun — is ultimately responsible.