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High-Flying NASA Mission Sets New GPS World Record

NASA's Magnetospheric Multisphere mission satellite
The four satellites of NASA's Magnetospheric Multisphere mission have set the record for highest-altitude GPS fix by checking in at 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometers) above Earth's surface. (Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space flight Center/Genna Duberstein, producer)

A NASA mission's GPS prowess is now part of the record books: The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission just broke a Guinness World Record for highest altitude fix of a GPS signal.

The four MMS satellites set the new space record by using GPS navigation at an altitude of 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometers) above Earth's surface. The satellites use GPS, which is a navigation system that pinpoints locations by checking in with devoted satellites in orbit, to stay in a tight flying formation as they survey Earth's magnetic field.

This isn't the only time that MMS broke a record. Previously, it managed the closest flying formation between several spacecraft, with only 4.5 miles (7.24 km) separating the four satellites. [NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission in Pictures]

A constellation of four satellites orbit through Earth's magnetic field to study the mysterious phenomenon called magnetic reconnection. See how NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale mission works in our infographic. (Image credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

MMS are also the fastest-traveling craft to use a GPS receiver, reaching 22,000 mph (35,405 km/h) when the mission is at its closest point to Earth along its orbit.

The primary mission of MMS is to help scientists understand Earth's magnetosphere, which is the region surrounding our planet where Earth's magnetic field is dominant (as opposed to the magnetic field of space itself).

"The mission uses four individual satellites that fly in a pyramid formation to map magnetic reconnection — a process that occurs as the sun and Earth's magnetic fields interact," officials from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. "Precise GPS tracking allows the satellites to maintain a tight formation and obtain high resolution three-dimensional observations."

Studying magnetic connection helps scientists understand phenomena ranging from flares on the sun's surface to auroras in Earth's atmosphere, NASA added.

The satellites will go to a higher orbit to look at a different region of the magnetosphere in spring, beginning Phase 2 of the mission. During that stage, the satellites are expected to at least double the GPS record they set, officials said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.