On March 13, 2015, United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched Atlas V launch vehicle carrying NASA’s 4 identical Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit (HEO) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral.
After reaching the orbit, each spacecraft was deployed from the rocket's upper stage sequentially in five-minute increments. The launch marked the 94th ULA's successful mission since the company was formed in 2006 and its third launch of 13 planned for 2015, after MUOS-3 mission on January 21 and SMAP mission on January 31.
The MMS mission was launched aboard an Atlas 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne's solid rocket boosters attached to the Atlas booster. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD-AMROSS' RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne's RL10A engine. This is also ULA's fourth launch of the Atlas 421 configuration, and NASA's 12th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket.
“It is our honor to launch this mission that will study the physics of magnetic reconnection. This energy process is one of the key drivers of space weather which affects communication networks, like GPS navigation and electrical power grids here on Earth. Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center team, Southwest Research Institute, all of our mission partners and the entire MMS team on this successful launch of the MMS constellation.” Jim Sponnick, ULA Vice-president
The four spacecraft, deployed from Centaur upper stage, are to fly in a pyramid formation through space in order to take unprecedented measurements of magnetic reconnection phenomenon as it occurs in different areas of Earth's magnetosphere. The spacecraft will fly the first phase of the mission in an elliptical orbit of near 2,500 to 70,000 km above Earth. After a year-and-a-half in that orbit, the MMS formation will take its orbit out to 153,000 km, almost halfway to the Moon. Science observations by the MMS are expected to begin in early September.
The mission will provide the first three-dimensional views of reconnection occurring in Earth's protective magnetic space environment, the magnetosphere. Magnetic reconnection occurs when magnetic fields connect, disconnect, and reconfigure explosively, releasing bursts of energy that can reach the order of billions of megatons of trinitrotoluene (commonly known as TNT). These explosions can send particles surging through space near the speed of light. Scientists expect the mission will not only help them better understand magnetic reconnection, but also will provide insight into these powerful events, which can disrupt modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.
“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection – and no mission has ever observed this fundamental process with such detail. The depth and detail of our knowledge is going to grow by leaps and bounds, in ways that no one can yet predict.” Jeff Newmark, Interim Director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division
MMS is the fourth mission in the NASA Solar Terrestrial Probes Program. The four observatories were designed, built and operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a science and instrument team led by Southwest Research Institute. The each one of four MMS octagonal disc-shaped spacecraft is fitted with 25 instruments, has mass of 1,250 kg and measuring 3.5 meters wide and 1.2 meters high in the launch mode, and almost 29 meters tall by 113 meters wide when fully deployed. The mission cost is estimated at (in different sources) $850 million to $1.1 billion.
ULA's next launch is the Delta IV GPS IIF-9 mission for the US Air Force, scheduled for March 25 from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.