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Saturday, February 17, 2007

NASA Mission Launches to Study Geomagnetic Substorms

NASA says its THEMIS mission successfully launched Saturday, Feb. 17, at 6:01 p.m. EST from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

THEMIS stands for the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms. It is NASA's first five-satellite mission launched aboard a single rocket. The spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle approximately 73 minutes after liftoff. By 8:07 p.m. EST, mission operators at the University of California, Berkeley, commanded and received signals from all five spacecraft, confirming nominal separation status, NASA says.

The mission will help resolve the mystery of what triggers geomagnetic substorms. Substorms are atmospheric events visible in the Northern Hemisphere as a sudden brightening of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. The findings from the mission may help protect commercial satellites and humans in space from the adverse effects of particle radiation, the space agency says.

THEMIS' satellite constellation will line up along the sun-Earth line, collect coordinated measurements, and observe substorms during the two-year mission. Data collected from the five identical probes will help pinpoint where and when substorms begin, a feat impossible with any previous single-satellite mission, NASA says.

"The THEMIS mission will make a breakthrough in our understanding of how Earth's magnetosphere stores and releases energy from the sun and also will demonstrate the tremendous potential that constellation missions have for space exploration," says Vassilis Angelopoulos, THEMIS principal investigator at the University of California, Berkeley. "THEMIS' unique alignments also will answer how the sun-Earth interaction is affected by Earth's bow shock, and how 'killer electrons' at Earth's radiation belts are accelerated."

The Mission Operations Center at the University of California, Berkeley, will monitor the health and status of the five satellites. Instrument scientists will turn on and characterize the instruments over the next 30 days. The center will then assign each spacecraft a target orbit within the THEMIS constellation based on its performance. Mission operators will direct the spacecraft to their final orbits in mid-September, NASA says.

During the mission the five THEMIS satellites will observe an estimated 30 substorms in process. At the same time, 20 ground observatories in Alaska and Canada will time the aurora and space currents. The relative timing between the five spacecraft and ground observations underneath them will help scientists determine the elusive substorm trigger mechanism, NASA says.

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