NASA spacecraft fly through a magnetic explosion in space, and scientists visualize the result.
On October 16, 2015, four spacecraft of NASA’s MMS mission made the first observations of what happens when magnetic fields around Earth connect and explosively realign. The process, called magnetic reconnection, occurs near the boundary where Earth’s protective magnetic environment, known as the magnetosphere, encounters the sun’s solar wind. The rearrangement of magnetic field lines happens in the blink of an eye, and can unleash a massive burst of energy that accelerates charged particles from the sun into the magnetosphere. To measure the behavior of these particles and changes to Earth’s magnetic field, the MMS observatories are equipped with a total of 100 sensors that gather multiple data points every second as they travel through known reconnection sites in space. Now, scientists have used this data to create a visualization that shows the flow of particles before, during and after magnetic reconnection. Because magnetic reconnection is one of the prime drivers of space radiation, it is a key factor in the quest to learn more about our space environment and protect our spacecraft and astronauts as we explore farther and farther from our home planet. Understanding how particles move during these events can also help scientists create improved models that predict space weather. Watch the video to see the visualization.