For the first time, physicists were able to observe the reconnection of the Earth’s and sun’s magnetic fields thanks to NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission. Their study, published on May 12 in the journal Science, says that magnetic reconnection may help scientists learn more about space and protect astronomers while on their journey toward the farther regions of the universe.

The magnetic reconnection occurs when the Earth and the sun’s magnetic field lines break and reconnect with each other, producing massive amounts of energy that can damage satellites in the process. The reconnection is also crucial to form solar flares, auroras, coronal mass ejections and magnetic storms.

“We developed a mission, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, that for the first time would have the precision needed to gather observations in the heart of magnetic reconnection,” says first author Jim Burch, who is also the principal investigator for MMS at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We received results faster than we could have expected. By seeing magnetic reconnection in action, we have observed one of the fundamental forces of nature.”

magnetic fields

Magnetic reconnection — a phenomenon that happens throughout space — occurs when magnetic field lines come together, realign and send particles hurling outward. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab

The MMS is made of four identical spacecraft launched last year. They fly in a pyramid formation, with a distance of 10 kilometres from each other, capturing images of electrons within the pyramid once every 30 milliseconds.

Measuring the behaviour of electrons in a reconnection event in detail will provide more insights on how a reconnection works. The researchers add that further analysis of this phenomenon will help scientists determine if solar flares and magnetic storms follow a predictable pattern just like how Earth’s weather systems do.

Moreover, the reconnection can also help experts know more about magnetars, which are neuron stars with very strong magnetic fields, as well as other energetic phenomena in the universe. The team says that the MMS is set to explore the side of the Earth’s magnetic field that face away from the sun.