Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission takes center stage at KSC

Atlas V 421 MMS spacecraft Astrotech facilitites photo credit Michael Howard SpaceFlight Insider

NASA displayed the MMS spacecraft and their payload fairing off to the media on Feb. 18 at the Astrotech Facilities in Florida. Photo Credit Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

TITUSVILLE, Fla — NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS ) Mission is inching closer to a planned March 12 liftoff date – a fact highlighted on Wednesday, Feb. 18 when the spacecraft were put on display at the Astrotech Space Operations facility located in Titusville, Florida. The quartet of craft were displayed next to the payload fairing (PLF) which will shield them during their trip through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, denoting that the mission is almost ready to begin.

MMS is comprised of four, identical, spacecraft which will orbit our planet, more specifically, they will orbit through the Earth’s magnetic system. It is hoped that the spacecraft will provide new insights into this little-understood region and will provide new data regarding magnetic reconnection.

Atlas V 421 MMS spacecraft Astrotech facilities photo credit Michael Howard SpaceFlight Insider

MMS will study aspects of Earth’s magnetic systems and will fly on the 421 version of ULA’s Atlas V booster. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA has stated that magnetic reconnection is a phenomenon unique to plasma and is described as being: “the mix of positively and negatively charged particles that make up stars, fill space, and account for an estimated 99 percent of the observable universe.”

While these processes occur throughout astrophysical plasma systems, at present scientists are only able to study them in situ (on site) and, given technological limitations, only in Earth’s magnetosphere.

“These regions that we are interested in… these reconnections happening…they are not stable. They are moving. We will get multiple measurements as they move by. If we only did it with one spacecraft, we wouldn’t know if it was because something was moving by, or if something is actually changing. With four of them, we can tell what changes are due to the motion, and which changes are due to the phenomena happening,” said James Burch from Southwest Region Institute.

NASA has made steady progress in preparing MMS for its planned flight and mission. As of Feb. 5, the space agency and the team of contractors working on the mission have completed the pre-stacking of MMS’ thermal blanket, the pyrotechnics have been installed in the Separation System Clamp-band systems on two of the spacecraft and the Safety and Mission Assurance Review (SMSR) has been carried out.

674-nasa_atlas_v_mms-michael_howard James Burch from the Southwest Region Institute detailed the upcoming mission to members of the press. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

James Burch from the Southwest Region Institute detailed the upcoming mission to members of the press. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

“The four spacecraft fly in a pyramid formation. Think about a 3-dimensional coordinate system. You have one aircraft at the origin, one along X, one along Y, one along Z. That’s a tetrahedron. So we can measure the spatial gradients. We can use that to compute the curl of the magnetic field, which gives you the current. The curl of the velocity gives you volticity. The curl of the elliptic field gives you the rate of change of the magnetic field,” Burch said.

MMS is the fourth mission under NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probes, or “STP,” program. The four satellites have a planned two-year prime mission. During this period, MMS will use its sensors to take measurements of the space environment at rates estimated by the space agency as being 100 times faster than prior missions.

The team managing the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission hail from an array of NASA centers, private companies as well as academic institutions.

Whereas the mission is headquartered out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center located in Maryland, the scientific team is led by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

MMS is currently scheduled to launch on March 12, from Cape Canaveral Air F0rce Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) located in Florida. NASA has tapped Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA ) to get the mission underway. An Atlas V 421, a rather unique configuration of the venerable Atlas booster, has been tapped to launch this mission.

While long-time followers of space flight have become familiar with Atlas V 401, 501, 541 and 551s lifting off from the Cape and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – the 421 configuration is a rarely-used version of the booster, having only launched three times before, the last being the flight of the USA-204 – WGS-2 mission in 2009.

679-nasa_atlas_v_mms-michael_howard spaceflight insider

When it flies, MMS will employ the seldom-used 421 configuration of the Atlas V launch vehicle. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Burch detailed how the spacecraft would interact with one another while they are on orbit.

“They will fly as close as 10km or as far apart as 400 km. We will vary it until we find the sweet spots, the distance that gives us the information that we need and then stay in that formation. We can’t change it all the time because we will run out of fuel if we were continually changing the formation,” Burch noted looking up at the stack of satellites. “At least two years. We have some reserve fuel on board that will get us into the third year. When we start getting low on fuel, the four spacecraft will line up in a line. The mission will continue, but the information that we get won’t be as rich as during the first two years of the mission.”

Video courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center




Welcome to SpaceFlight Insider! Be sure to follow us on Facebook: SpaceFlight Insider as well as on Twitter at: @SpaceflightIns



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Exactly what is the 421 configuration?

Hi John,

421 configuration means the rocket has a 4-meter payload fairing, one single-engine Centaur upper stage and two strap-on boosters. Hope this helps.


Small typo on the second picture legend (MSS/MMS) – feel free to delete my post-

Very informative article 🙂

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *