NASA Scrambles to Handle Magnetic Anomaly

NASA Scrambles to Handle Magnetic Anomaly

Earth itself is an anomaly, the only planet we officially know of that harbors life. Our blue planet holds untold secrets, many of which we’ve come to understand or at least think we have. However, there are some things that we still don’t fully understand, oftentimes bringing concern. What’s happening to the Earth’s magnetic field is one of those things.

The Earth provides us with a shield via its magnetic field, due to the planet’s iron-rich core. This field engulfs our homeworld and protects us and our technology from charged particles emitted from the sun. Problem is, there seems to be a “dent” in the Earth’s magnetic field allowing those charged particles to get closer to the Earth and in turn us. The dip takes place over the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa, earning it the name South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA).

The particles from the sun interfere with instrumentation aboard our satellites, so NASA and other researchers have no choice but to adjust and accommodate this anomaly. When passing through the SAA astronauts must turn off instruments and accept the loss of data on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA, according to an article from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is keeping a close eye on the anomaly.

What is it?

Earth’s magnetic field is produced by the swirling of the Earth’s iron-rich outer core around the inner core. The field protects us from harmful particles as well as protecting Earth’s atmosphere from being stripped away. Typically the particles are deflected and get trapped between two zones known as the Van Allen Belts, which stops particles from getting any closer to Earth than 400 miles. This is plenty of space to protect our satellites which typically orbit the Earth around 220 miles above the surface.

However, Earth’s magnetic field is weakening, leading some scientists to believe the field is going to reverse polarity, North becomes South and vice versa. Of course, it could just be going through a weak phase and may simply restrengthen over time. The SAA seems to be sort of a ground zero for the event though; originally thought to be one spot, but instead, further research shows it’s actually two spots experiencing low points.

Staying Up to Date

Scientists at Goddard and others around the world are keeping a close eye on the anomaly, watching for any changes. They’re also making sure that operations are protected from the effects of the anomaly as well as trying to understand it and how it may change in the future. Data used from a satellite launched in 1992, the Solar Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer (SAMPEX), that collected data until 2012, revealed that the SAA was moving westward.

Satellites known as “SWARM” from the European Space Agency (ESA), launched in 2013, provided data that showed the development of two weak points; hinting at the possibility that there may be two separate zones eventually.

With this data scientists and engineers can design their satellites to withstand the amount of radiation they will be exposed to in orbit. Scientists are also cross-referencing observational data and models of the Earth in an attempt to predict what the anomaly might do. Researchers outside of NASA are studying the links between the outer core and Earth magnetic field, likely hoping to understand the features of the magnetic field.

Copyright 2020,