January 27, 2020

01.11.09:What Fuels Magnetic Reconnection?

A little publicized mission may have big-time repercussions for the future of energy production. NASA’s Magnetospheric Multi-scale Mission (MMS) has just been given the green light to proceed with spacecraft production. Consisting of a fleet of four hockey puck-shaped spacecraft, MMS will study the area where the Earth’s magnetosphere meets the solar wind. In this realm, dynamic magnetic reconnection events often take place. On the surface of the Sun, these explosive events occur when constricting magnetic fields collide, often releasing thousands of megatons of force. Scheduled to launch in 2014, the magnetosphere of Earth will provide an ideal natural laboratory to study this little known phenomenon. This may ultimately lead to the holy grail in physics and energy production; harness-able fusion energy. Currently, the leading contender in the area of fusion containment is magnetic confinement fusion inside reactors termed tokamaks. The chief problem encountered in these experimental reactors is a phenomenon known as a “sawtooth crash,” or a leakage of hot plasma that occurs during a magnetic reconnection event. Tough to study in the confines of a reactor, MMS will provide a laboratory millions of miles wide to study the physics of magnetic re-connection events. Of course, usable fusion energy, like the 24 hour laptop battery and hydrogen fueled car, always seems to be just “20 years away…” Watch this space and the MMS web page for updates!



21.10.09:IBEX: The Unsung Hero.

Amidst the recent water on the Moon hoopla, one key player was largely missed by the media; IBEX, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer. Launched in October 19th, 2008, IBEX travels in a highly eccentric Earth orbit that takes it from a perigee of 4,000 miles to an apogee of 150,000 miles in 3 days. This enables IBEX to dip in and out of Earth’s magnetosphere and bow shock, panning its 7 degree field of view camera in an all sky survey to map the heliopause, the boundary of our solar system with interstellar space. The cameras, dubbed IBEX Hi & Lo respectively, are the most sensitive neutron detectors ever flown, and span the sky looking for particles moving in access of 161,000 miles per hour. When it was first turned on & checked out earlier this year, engineers got a start; a nearby, large source of neutral atoms nearly filling the field of view. That was none other than our own Moon, reflecting the solar wind off of the lunar soil. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from this onslaught, which hits the daytime side of the Moon unimpeded. The signature and percentage of particles seen lends credence to the water mixed in with the lunar soil theory, embedded mostly as hydroxyl compounds. In fact, the heliopause itself has shown signs of shrinking as of late due to the ongoing solar minimum… the just released image above released by the IBEX team sheds light on the overall structure of the heliopause as our solar system moves through the interstellar medium. Most interestingly, it shows that a large ribbon of Energetic Neutral Atoms (ENA’s) flowing between Voyager 1 & 2, our farthest soon-to-be intergalactic outposts. Just what would life in the interstellar medium be like, should it be pressed down or swept back interior to Earth’s orbit, as has been hypothesized in the distant past? Watch for more news on IBEX to come!