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CAPE CANAVERAL – A quartet of NASA observatories blasted off from Cape Canaveral late Thursday on a mission to study magnetic explosions in space, whose causes have confounded scientists.

The $1.1 billion Magnetospheric Multiscale mission lifted off on time at 10:44 p.m. EDT atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41.

The 195-foot rocket lit up the night sky as it lifted off with 1.6 million pounds of thrust, powered by a Russian main engine and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

The four identical spacecraft atop the rocket were on their way to studying "magnetic reconnection," a fundamental physics phenomenon in which magnetic fields collide, break apart and reform, releasing powerful bursts of energy in the process.

Magnetic reconnection causes solar flares and space weather such as the aurora and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt satellites and power grids.

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The same process has frustrated attempts to harness nuclear fusion in laboratories, and the physics behind it is not well understood.

The spacecraft stacked on top of the rocket's Centaur upper stage were scheduled to deploy into space in five-minute intervals starting 92 minutes after liftoff.

Once up and running, they were designed to fly in a pyramid formation through the Earth's magnetosphere, flying within six miles of each other in orbits ranging from 44,000 to 95,000 miles from Earth.

The four-craft formation will enable the mission to produce 3-D models of magnetic reconnection events they will fly through in a split-second.

The launch was the 53rd by an Atlas V and ULA's third of 13 missions planned this year.

SpaceX is tentatively targeting a March 21 launch of a communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, followed by ULA's planned March 25 launch of a GPS satellite by a Delta IV rocket.

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Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or jdean@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean

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