CU-Boulder students to help control instruments on NASA spacecraft to probe magnetic reconnection

Published: March 4, 2015

The University of Colorado Boulder will serve as the Science Operations Center for a NASA mission launching this month to better understand the physical processes of geomagnetic storms, solar flares and other energetic phenomena throughout the universe.

The $1.1 billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will be comprised of four identical, octagonal spacecraft flying in a pyramid formation, each carrying 25 instruments. The goal is to study in detail magnetic reconnection, the primary process by which energy is transferred from the solar wind to Earth’s protective magnetic space environment known as the magnetosphere, said CU-Boulder Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, Science Operations Center (SOC) lead scientist for MMS.

“Magnetic reconnection is a process in which energy stored in a magnetic field is converted, generally explosively, into heat and energy in the form of charged particle acceleration and large-scale flows of hot gas, or plasma,” said Baker, also director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

LASP Mission Operations and Data Systems Director Bill Possel said all of the data downlinked from the four spacecraft will be captured, stored and distributed from LASP’s SOC. “Our job to get it out to scientists as quickly as we can,” said Possel.

In addition, the center will be responsible for uploading commands and monitoring 100 instruments on the MMS mission -- 25 on each spacecraft. “We already control four spacecraft and 15 instruments in space, but this will be a big jump up for us,” Possel said.

Students play a significant role in all LASP missions, and the SOC activities will involve 20 undergraduates who will work in shifts with professionals to upload all MMS instrument commands. “This is one of NASA’s flagship missions, and our students have the opportunity to be the first people ever to send commands and monitor the health of MMS instruments,” said Possel. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Possel said the students -- some of whom even created software tools to help upload commands to the spacecraft -- will work 4-hour shifts in the SOC, located in LASP’s Space Technology Research Center as they monitor the spacecraft day and night during the six-month checkout period. The mission, expected to be worth more than $15 million to CU-Boulder in NASA funding, is slated to run at least another two years after that.

Junior aerospace engineering sciences student Evan Grazer, who is on the MMS instrument control team and also helped to develop software for the mission, said the students are currently conducting “dry runs” to get ready. “We are the ones who will be at the consoles, sending instrument commands and working closely with the flight controllers, so we want to learn how to be as effective as possible,” he said.

Another MMS student controller, junior Maggie Williams of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, previously worked on a student satellite project at the CU-Boulder-headquartered Colorado Space Grant Consortium. “When I came to CU-Boulder I didn’t know about these kinds of opportunities,” she said. “I feel very fortunate.”

MMS is slated to launch March 12 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

While scientists are very interested in the basic science behind magnetic reconnection, understanding more about it also should help them better understand space weather events on Earth. This includes the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which can contain billions of tons of solar particles in the form of gas bubbles and magnetic fields that explode off the sun’s surface and hammer Earth, interfering with GPS satellites, power grids, radio communications and threatening astronaut health.

“Earth’s magnetic field lines trap and control protons and electrons, bouncing them between Earth’s poles like beads on a string,” said Baker. “What happens during magnetic reconnection events is that these field lines are broken, then instantly reconnected with different partners.”

The four spacecraft, which will be stacked like giant pancakes on the Atlas V launch vehicle built by United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, will fly in formation in an elliptical orbit that will place them within several miles of each other. The key to the mission is the cutting-edge capability of the spacecraft, which will be taking enormous amounts of data from both a telescopic and microscopic perspective, said Baker. The instruments can produce a 3-D image of electron plasma by recording points of data every 30 milliseconds – more than 10 times faster than the blink of an eye.

“We have been waiting for the past 70 years for a ‘smoking gun’ observation of this magnetic reconnection process,” said Baker. “Now we will be able to see electrons and protons move around the magnetic field, and finally observe the mechanisms by which the magnetic reconnection process takes place.”

Each spacecraft will carry identical suites of plasma analyzers, energetic particle detectors, magnetometers and electric fields instruments. “The instruments will help scientists locate and zoom in on small, rapidly moving magnetic reconnection regions, showing this important environment around the Earth at a level of definition not previously possible,” said SOC Manager Chris Pankratz of LASP. Pankratz began working at LASP as a student satellite controller for the Solar Mesosphere Explorer in the 1980s.

For the mission, LASP also contributed an electronics package known as the Digital Fields Board, which is the “brains” of the Electric Field and Waves Suite on board each spacecraft. The LASP electronics package will help select and compress data using two fixed antennas and four extendable wire booms, each roughly half as long as a football field, said LASP’s Robert Ergun, who is leading that effort.

“The spacecraft will be taking continuous, high-resolution data, but we can’t have it all sent back to Earth because of the extremely high volume,” said Pankratz. “Instead, we will scan low-resolution data for ‘thumbprints’ of magnetic reconnection events -- essentially needles in a haystack -- then command the spacecraft to send down the corresponding high-resolution data samples.”

During the first half of the mission, the MMS spacecraft will fly in a highly elliptical orbit between about 4,400 miles and 47,000 miles in altitude. The spacecraft orbits will eventually be extended to about 93,000 miles above Earth.

Possel said the science operations team at LASP will be in close contact with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which will be controlling the spacecraft. Jim Burch of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, is the principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite.

“I knew about CU-Boulder’s reputation in the space sciences,” said Esteben Rodriguez, a junior in aerospace engineering sciences from South Dakota who is on the MMS instrument control team. “What I didn’t know was this is one of the few places in the world where undergraduates can get real mission operations experience.”

Contact:
Daniel Baker, 303-492-0591
daniel.baker@lasp.colorado.edu
Bill Possel, 303-492-6867
william.possel@colorado.edu
Chris Pankratz, 303-492-0696
chris.pankratz@colorado.edu
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114
jim.scott@colorado.edu

Undergraduate students, foreground left to right, Lucas Migliorini , Matt Muszynski and Hui Kang Ma work in the MMS control room in LASP at the University of Colorado Boulder under the direction of MMS Flight Director Jason Beech, background left, and MMS Science Operations Center Manager Chris Pankratz.  (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

“I knew about CU-Boulder’s reputation in the space sciences,” said Esteben Rodriguez, a junior in aerospace engineering sciences from South Dakota who is on the MMS instrument control team. “What I didn’t know was this is one of the few places in the world where undergraduates can get real mission operations experience.”