NASA’s TRACERS Mission Passes Key Milestone, Advances Toward Launch

NASA’s Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites mission, or TRACERS mission, has passed a critical mission review on March 31, 2022. The mission now moves into its next phase, advancing towards its target launch readiness date of July 27, 2024.

“We’re excited to pass this major milestone and get one step closer to launch,” said Prof. Craig Kletzing, space physicist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and the mission’s principal investigator.

The review, Key Decision Point C, evaluated the mission’s preliminary design and program plan to achieve launch by its target launch readiness. With the successful review, TRACERS now moves into Phase C, which includes the final design of the mission and building of the two satellites.

“TRACERS will be an important addition to our heliophysics fleet,” said Washito Sasamoto, program executive for the mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The mission is targeting long-standing questions critical to understanding the Sun-Earth system.”

TRACERS is a pair of satellites that will study how the solar wind, the continuous stream of ionized particles escaping the Sun and pouring out the space, interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, the region around Earth dominated by our planet’s magnetic field. The linchpin of that interaction is the phenomenon of magnetic reconnection, an explosive transfer of energy that can happen when two magnetic fields meet.

Magnetic reconnection happens all throughout space but is of special relevance where the solar wind first meets Earth’s magnetosphere, a region known as the magnetopause. A reconnection event can shoot solar wind particles, normally diverted around our planet, directly into our atmosphere at high speeds. These particles ignite the beautiful northern and southern lights but also create potentially hazardous conditions for astronauts and sensitive satellites.

To study magnetic reconnection at Earth’s magnetopause, TRACERS will fly through the polar cusp, a point where Earth’s magnetic field dips down toward the ground. There, particles funnel through the cusp into a concentrated part of our atmosphere.

graphic showing solar wind blowing against giant magnetic bubble surrounding earth, with two funnels in the bubble at the north and south poles
Earth is protected by a giant magnetic bubble known as our magnetosphere. However, the solar wind can still impinge on our planet’s atmosphere through the polar cusps, two funnels in that magnetic field that allow some particles through. The particles that pass through the cusp carry signatures of the magnetic interactions that happen where the solar wind meets our magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/CILab/Josh Masters

“Magnetic reconnection can happen in lots of places in the magnetopause, but it’s hard to survey such a giant search space,” Kletzing said. “The cusp is one place where can study the signatures of reconnection that happen all over.”

TRACERS will repeatedly fly through the northern polar cusp, one satellite behind the other, to study where and how often reconnection happens at the outer edges of Earth’s magnetic field. These measurements are critical for understanding and eventually predicting how energy from our Sun transfers into our planet.

TRACERS is led by Craig Kletzing at the University of Iowa and managed by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.  NASA’s Heliophysics Explorers Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides mission oversight to the project for the agency’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

From Small Towns to a Big NASA Gig

Story by Richard C. Lewis
Photography by Tim Schoon

You don’t need big-city credentials to work with NASA.

Just ask Andrew Carton and Ryan Helland. Each hails from a small town in Iowa, discovered a love for physics at the University of Iowa, and soon after graduating scored jobs on a space mission that is the largest externally funded research endeavor in university history.

The Iowa-led mission, Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS), received $115 million from NASA to study the mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the Sun and Earth. TRACERS is part of a larger initiative, NASA’s Explorers Program, studying how the Sun affects space and the space environment around planets.

satellites over Earth
Illustration of the TRACERS satellites in space. TRACERS will fly through the Earth’s magnetic cusp to study magnetic interactions between Earth and the solar wind. Credit: NASA

Carton and Helland were hired to the TRACERS team within months of graduating from Iowa in May 2020. Carton is overseeing the development of a circuit board critical to the research, and Helland is helping to build a magnetic search coil that will measure magnetic fields.

Neither expected such an opportunity so soon after graduation.

“You feel like you’re doing something important, and at a high level, that’s going to further your career,” Helland says. “It’s very lucky for me, my first job working on a NASA grant this big.”

“I would say that it makes me feel very privileged and very humble,” Carton adds, “to be at my age in the position that I am.”

man working on a machine in a lab
Andrew Carton is working on the TRACERS mission in his lab in Van Allen Hall. Credit: Tim Schoon

Helland grew up on a third-generation family farm outside Huxley, in central Iowa. Carton comes from Earlville, a community of about 800 in eastern Iowa. They came to Iowa unsure what they wanted to achieve but found academic opportunities and people eager to help them succeed.

Helland learned about physics at the university when he visited a professor, Vincent Rodgers, to ask him about concepts he had come across while reading a book on quantum mechanics. Before he knew it, Rodgers had invited him to attend meetings involving his research group.

“Here I am, a freshman sitting in on his research meetings,” recalls Helland. “It was really cool.”

Carton became interested in physics when he learned about Iowa’s long, distinguished history of space discoveries while taking an introductory physics class taught by Craig Kletzing, the lead scientist on the TRACERS mission and the Donald A. and Marie B. Gurnett Chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“I remember him talking about James Van Allen (longtime Iowa professor who pioneered space research and discovered radiation belts around Earth), why the building was named after him, why the radiation belts are named after him,” Carton says. “It was the first time I had heard of all that.”

Helland switched his major to physics soon after that first meeting with Rodgers. During the summer after his first year, Helland was working in the department’s machine shop when he had a serendipitous encounter with George Hospodarsky, a research scientist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

young man facing camera
Ryan Helland, from Huxley, Iowa, graduated in May 2020 and is now working on Tracers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Credit: Tim Schoon

“I was moving a shelf for him, and we got to talking, and he liked me, and he hired me as a student data analyst,” Helland says.

Helland analyzed information coming from Juno, a NASA spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.

“Dr. Hospodarsky had me looking at data about lightning on Jupiter,” Helland says. “Just thinking there is a lightning strike happening across space, and we’re getting the data about it in Van Allen Hall—that’s just pretty crazy.”

Carton, an electrical and computer engineering major, remembers one episode when he overheard a student named Suman Sherwani—now working at SpaceX—ask her adviser for guidance about which of two NASA internships to accept.

“I was literally wearing a NASA sweatshirt at the time, and I was like, ‘Wait, did you say these internships came because of Iowa?’” Carton says. “It was the first time I realized there were opportunities directly out of college here.”

Now, Carton and Helland are the ones who realized the opportunities at Iowa.

“If you just talk to people, if you can muster the courage to talk to a professor and be involved, you’re going to get somewhere,” Helland says.