CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Five satellites were launched into space from Florida on Saturday aboard an unmanned Delta rocket to investigate electromagnetic storms, the dark side of the phenomenon that causes Earth’s dazzling aurorae.
The $200 million mission is expected to help scientists develop better forecasting techniques for potentially dangerous solar storms, which can knock out power grids, navigation and other satellites and even force airlines to abandon polar routes due to loss of radio contact.
The satellites were carried into orbit aboard a Boeing-built Delta 2 rocket that lifted off at 6:01 p.m. (2301 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The solar storms are better known for triggering the beautiful sheets of shimmering green lights near Earth’s north and south poles. The lights, known as aurorae, are caused by charged particles that have been blasted off the sun’s surface toward Earth, where they can interact with the planet’s magnetic field.
During storms, the magnetosphere is overloaded with energy, causing magnetic field lines to stretch until they snap back like giant rubber bands, flinging electrically charged particles at the planet. They travel into the upper atmosphere over the polar regions, where they smash into atoms and molecules, causing them to glow.
Scientists want to know where magnetic disturbances arise in hopes of being able to better predict when they will strike.
“For over 30 years, the source location of these explosive energy releases has been sought after with great fervor. It is a question almost as old as space physics itself,” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, the lead scientist for the mission, which is called Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS.
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The charged particles also can damage electronic components on spacecraft, short-circuit power lines and rip through the bodies of astronauts in space, potentially causing cancer.
A network of five satellites is needed to track the storms, which start from a single point in space and progress past the moon’s orbit within minutes.
The purpose of THEMIS is to identify the trigger locations and unravel the physics of the storms’ progressions. Over the network’s two-year lifetime, scientists hope to observe about 30 storms.
The launch was the first for NASA since Boeing and Lockheed Martin combined their commercial launch services of both the Delta and the Lockheed-built Atlas boosters into the jointly owned United Launch Alliance.
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