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UD Physics research reaches new heights on NASA mission


The auroras and “northern lights” that can be admired towards the North or South Poles are caused by a little-known phenomenon called magnetic reconnection or explosions.

Basically, magnetic fields break apart and rejoin, releasing large amounts of energy. These magnetic explosions play a huge role in space weather, which are patterns of radiation in outer space that can dictate whether space agencies can send astronauts into space or whether satellites should be shut off.“[Space weather] can damage satellites, it can injure astronauts,” said Michael Shay, a University of Delaware physicist who studies magnetic reconnection. “The electric fields created can cause power outages at high latitudes. There’s a real impact of this space weather on the technology of humankind.”

Last Thursday, NASA launched the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission to study magnetic activity 38,000 miles above Earth. Shay recently returned from seeing the launch at Cape Canaveral

The mission involves four satellites with 25 sensors that will be able to provide three-dimensional visualizations of magnetic reconnection.

“In magnetic reconnection, magnetic field lines actually join and reform, and in doing so, they release a huge amount of energy,” said Shay. “It’s so much energy that I like to call them ‘magnetic explosions.’”

The amount of energy released is more than the amount that all the humans on the planet consume in a year.

The data collected on these satellites will help UD’s ongoing research. Last year, Shay and another UD physicist William Matthaeus received a $1.2 million dollar grant to study how energy from the sun is transported through the solar system.

The mission will last for at least two and a half years. According to Shay, the satellites have already started beaming back data him and his colleagues to analyze.