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NASA’s Magnetospheric Spacecraft Breaks Record For Highest Altitude GPS Fix

Nov 08, 2016 05:01 AM EST

NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) now holds the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude fix of a GPS signal.

The MMS satellites, which are operating in a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth, have set the record at 43,500 miles above the surface. The four MMS spacecraft incorporate GPS measurements into their precise tracking systems, which require extremely sensitive position and orbit calculations to guide tight flying formations, NASA said in a statement.

MMS orbits through near-Earth space to provide insights about the planet's magnetosphere and gather high-resolution 3D observations of a scarcely understood process called magnetic reconnection, which occurs when the sun and Earth's magnetic fields interact.

"The four MMS spacecraft fly in a pyramid shape, with one satellite marking each corner," NASA said in a statement. "This shape, called a tetrahedron, allows MMS to capture three-dimensional observations of magnetic reconnection - critical for fully understanding this process."

According to scientists, magnetic reconnection causes a material to be energized in space and plays an essential role in space events such as giant flares on the surface of the sun and green-blue auroras on Earth. Understanding magnetic reconnection is also important for understanding processes occurring in black holes and neutron stars.

The MMS launched on March 12, 2015, and began scientific observations on Sept. 4, 2015. In September this year, the four MMS spacecraft began flying at a distance of only four-and-a-half miles apart - the closest separation ever of any multi-spacecraft formation. According to NASA, when the satellites are closest to Earth, they move at up to 22,000 miles per hour, making them the fastest known operational use of a GPS receiver.

In spring, MMS will enter Phase 2 of the mission, which involves sending the satellites to an even larger orbit to explore a different part of the Earth's magnetosphere. During this period, the satellites are again expected to break their current high-altitude GPS record by a factor of two or more, NASA said.

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