NASA Tracking Slowly Splitting “Dent” in Earth’s Magnetic Field – Could Cause Big Headaches for Satellites

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Earth's Magnetic Field Model

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This stereoscopic visualization reveals an easy design of the Earth’s electromagnetic field. The electromagnetic field partly guards the Earth from damaging charged particles originating from the Sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

A little however developing damage in Earth’s electromagnetic field can trigger huge headaches for satellites.

Earth’s electromagnetic field imitates a protective guard around the world, warding off and trapping charged particles from the Sun. But over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean, an abnormally weak point in the field – called the South Atlantic Anomaly, or SAA – enables these particles to dip closer to the surface area than typical. Particle radiation in this area can knock out onboard computer systems and disrupt the information collection of satellites that go through it – a crucial reason NASA researchers wish to track and study the abnormality.

The South Atlantic Anomaly is likewise of interest to NASA’s Earth researchers who keep track of the modifications in magnetic field strength there, both for how such modifications impact Earth’s environment and as a sign of what’s taking place to Earth’s electromagnetic fields, deep inside the world.

Currently, the SAA produces no noticeable effect on every day life on the surface area. However, current observations and projections reveal that the area is broadening westward and continuing to deteriorate in strength. It is likewise splitting – current information reveals the abnormality’s valley, or area of minimum field strength, has actually divided into 2 lobes, producing extra obstacles for satellite objectives.

A host of NASA researchers in geomagnetic, geophysics, and heliophysics research study groups observe and design the SAA, to keep track of and anticipate future modifications – and assist get ready for future obstacles to satellites and human beings in area.


Earth’s electromagnetic field imitates a protective guard around the world, warding off and trapping charged particles from the Sun. But over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean, an abnormally weak point in the field – called the South Atlantic Anomaly, or SAA – enables these particles to dip closer to the surface area than typical. Currently, the SAA produces no noticeable effect on every day life on the surface area. However, current observations and projections reveal that the area is broadening westward and continuing to deteriorate in strength. The South Atlantic Anomaly is likewise of interest to NASA’s Earth researchers who keep track of the modifications in magnetic strength there, both for how such modifications impact Earth’s environment and as a sign of what’s taking place to Earth’s electromagnetic fields, deep inside the world. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s what’s inside that counts

The South Atlantic Anomaly emerges from 2 functions of Earth’s core: The tilt of its magnetic axis, and the circulation of molten metals within its external core.

Earth is a bit like a bar magnet, with north and south poles that represent opposing magnetic polarities and unnoticeable electromagnetic field lines surrounding the world in between them. But unlike a bar magnet, the core electromagnetic field is not completely lined up through the world, nor is it completely steady. That’s since the field stems from Earth’s external core: molten, iron-rich and in energetic movement 1800 miles listed below the surface area. These churning metals imitate a huge generator, called the geodynamo, producing electrical currents that produce the electromagnetic field.

As the core movement modifications in time, due to complicated geodynamic conditions within the core and at the border with the strong mantle up above, the electromagnetic field varies in area and time too. These dynamical procedures in the core ripple outside to the electromagnetic field surrounding the world, creating the SAA and other functions in the near-Earth environment – consisting of the tilt and drift of the magnetic poles, which are moving over time. These advancements in the field, which take place on a comparable time scale to the convection of metals in the external core, supply researchers with brand-new ideas to assist them unwind the core characteristics that drive the geodynamo.

“The magnetic field is actually a superposition of fields from many current sources,” stated Terry Sabaka, a geophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Regions beyond the strong Earth likewise add to the observed electromagnetic field. However, he stated, the bulk of the field originates from the core.

The forces in the core and the tilt of the magnetic axis together produce the abnormality, the location of weaker magnetism – permitting charged particles caught in Earth’s electromagnetic field to dip closer to the surface area.

Van Allen Belts Around Earth

When solar product streams strikes Earth’s magnetosphere, it can end up being caught and kept in 2 donut-shaped belts around the world called the Van Allen Belts. The belts limit the particles to take a trip along Earth’s electromagnetic field lines, continuously recovering and forth from pole to pole. Credit: NASA Goddard / Tom Bridgman

The Sun expels a consistent outflow of particles and electromagnetic fields called the solar wind and large clouds of hot plasma and radiation called coronal mass ejections. When this solar product streams throughout area and strikes Earth’s magnetosphere, the area inhabited by Earth’s electromagnetic field, it can end up being caught and kept in 2 donut-shaped belts around the world called the Van Allen Belts. The belts limit the particles to take a trip along Earth’s electromagnetic field lines, continuously recovering and forth from pole to pole. The innermost belt starts about 400 miles from the surface area of Earth, which keeps its particle radiation a healthy range from Earth and its orbiting satellites.

However, when an especially strong storm of particles from the Sun reaches Earth, the Van Allen belts can end up being extremely stimulated and the electromagnetic field can be warped, permitting the charged particles to permeate the environment.

“The observed SAA can be also interpreted as a consequence of weakening dominance of the dipole field in the region,” stated Weijia Kuang, a geophysicist and mathematician in Goddard’s Geodesy and Geophysics Laboratory. “More specifically, a localized field with reversed polarity grows strongly in the SAA region, thus making the field intensity very weak, weaker than that of the surrounding regions.”  

A pit in area

Although the South Atlantic Anomaly emerges from procedures inside Earth, it has results that reach far beyond Earth’s surface area. The area can be dangerous for low-Earth orbit satellites that take a trip through it. If a satellite is struck by a high-energy proton, it can short-circuit and trigger an occasion called single occasion upset or SEU. This can trigger the satellite’s function to problem momentarily or can trigger irreversible damage if a crucial part is struck. In order to prevent losing instruments or a whole satellite, operators frequently closed down non-essential parts as they go through the SAA. Indeed, NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer routinely takes a trip through the area therefore the objective keeps consistent tabs on the SAA’s position.

The International Space Station, which remains in low-Earth orbit, likewise goes through the SAA. It is well safeguarded, and astronauts are safe from damage while within. However, the ISS has actually other guests impacted by the greater radiation levels: Instruments like the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation objective, or GEDI, gather information from different positions on the exterior of the ISS. The SAA triggers “blips” on GEDI’s detectors and resets the instrument’s power boards about as soon as a month, stated Bryan Blair, the objective’s deputy principal private investigator and instrument researcher, and a lidar instrument researcher at Goddard.

Solar Wind Earth Magnetosphere

The Sun expels a consistent outflow of particles and electromagnetic fields called the solar wind and large clouds of hot plasma and radiation called coronal mass ejections. This solar product streams throughout area and strikes Earth’s magnetosphere, the area inhabited by Earth’s electromagnetic field, which imitates a protective guard around the world. Credit: NASA Goddard / Bailee DesRocher

“These events cause no harm to GEDI,” Blair stated. “The detector blips are rare compared to the number of laser shots – about one blip in a million shots – and the reset line event causes a couple of hours of lost data, but it only happens every month or so.”

In addition to determining the SAA’s magnetic field strength, NASA researchers have actually likewise studied the particle radiation in the area with the Solar, Anomalous, and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer, or SAMPEX – the very first of NASA’s Small Explorer objectives, released in 1992 and supplying observations till 2012. One research study, led by NASA heliophysicist Ashley Greeley as part of her doctoral thesis, utilized twenty years of information from SAMPEX to reveal that the SAA is gradually however gradually wandering in a northwesterly instructions. The results assisted verify designs produced from geomagnetic measurements and demonstrated how the SAA’s place modifications as the geomagnetic field progresses.

“These particles are intimately associated with the magnetic field, which guides their motions,” stated Shri Kanekal, a scientist in the Heliospheric Physics Laboratory at NASA Goddard. “Therefore, any knowledge of particles gives you information on the geomagnetic field as well.”

Greeley’s outcomes, released in the journal Space Weather, were likewise able to supply a clear image of the type and quantity of particle radiation satellites get when travelling through the SAA, which highlighted the requirement for continuing tracking in the area.

The details Greeley and her partners gathered from SAMPEX’s in-situ measurements has actually likewise worked for satellite style. Engineers for the Low-Earth Orbit, or LEO, satellite utilized the outcomes to create systems that would avoid a latch-up occasion from triggering failure or loss of the spacecraft.

Modeling a more secure future for satellites

In order to comprehend how the SAA is altering and to get ready for future risks to satellites and instruments, Sabaka, Kuang and their associates utilize observations and physics to add to worldwide designs of Earth’s electromagnetic field.

The group examines the existing state of the electromagnetic field utilizing information from the European Space Agency’s Swarm constellation, previous objectives from firms around the globe, and ground measurements. Sabaka’s group teases apart the observational information to separate out its source prior to passing it on to Kuang’s group. They integrate the arranged information from Sabaka’s group with their core characteristics design to anticipate geomagnetic nonreligious variation (fast modifications in the electromagnetic field) into the future.

The geodynamo designs are special in their capability to utilize core physics to produce near-future projections, stated Andrew Tangborn, a mathematician in Goddard’s Planetary Geodynamics Laboratory.

“This is similar to how weather forecasts are produced, but we are working with much longer time scales,” he stated. “This is the fundamental difference between what we do at Goddard and most other research groups modeling changes in Earth’s magnetic field.”

One such application that Sabaka and Kuang have actually added to is the International Geomagnetic Reference Field, or IGRF. Used for a range of research study from the core to the limits of the environment, the IGRF is a collection of prospect designs made by around the world research study groups that explain Earth’s electromagnetic field and track how it alters in time.

“Even though the SAA is slow-moving, it is going through some change in morphology, so it’s also important that we keep observing it by having continued missions,” Sabaka stated. “Because that’s what helps us make models and predictions.”

The altering SAA supplies scientists brand-new chances to comprehend Earth’s core, and how its characteristics affect other elements of the Earth system, stated Kuang. By tracking this gradually developing “dent” in the electromagnetic field, scientists can much better comprehend the method our world is altering and assist get ready for a more secure future for satellites.