Minimize Swarm

Swarm (Geomagnetic LEO Constellation)

Space segment concept     Launch    Swarm's Orbits    Mission Status     Sensor Complement   
Ground Segment    References 

Swarm is a minisatellite constellation mission within the Earth Explorer Opportunity Program of ESA, proposed under the lead of DNSC (Danish National Space Center) of Copenhagen, Denmark (formerly DSRI). In January 2007, DNSC became DTU Space, an institute at the Technical University of Denmark. The Swarm mission will be the 4th mission in ESA's Earth Explorer Program, following GOCE, SMOS, and CryoSat-2.

The first mission to ever map the Earth's magnetic field vector at LEO was the NASA MagSat spacecraft (launch Oct. 30 1979). Due to the low perigee (perigee=350 km, apogee=551 km), MagSat remained in orbit for only seven and a half months until June 11, 1980. About 20 years later, the Danish Ørsted micro satellite (1999-), the German CHAMP (2000-), the Argentine SAC-C (2000-) have been designed specifically for mapping the LEO magnetic field. Common to these recent missions is the magnetometry package, which utilizes a vector field magnetometer co-mounted with a star tracker (2 in the case of CHAMP) on an optical bench. As the accuracy of the instrument package has constantly increased, as well as the modelling methods have been improved towards optimized signal decomposition, it has been realized that simultaneous data from several points in space is needed, if the ultimate modelling barrier, the spatial-temporal ambiguity, has to be broken.

The overall objective of the Swarm mission is to build on the Ørsted and CHAMP mission experiences and to provide the best ever survey of the geomagnetic field (multi-point measurements) and its temporal evolution, to gain new insights into the Earth system by improving our understanding of the Earth's interior and climate. 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) 10) 11) 12) 13) 14) 15) 16) 17) 18)

This will be done by a constellation of three satellites, two will fly at a lower altitude, measuring the East-West gradient of the magnetic field, and one satellite will fly at a higher altitude in a different local time sector. Other measurements will also be made to complement the magnetic field measurements. Together these multipoint measurements will allow the deduction of information on a series of solid-Earth processes responsible for the creation of the fields measured.

Background on the discovery of electromagnetism:

The history of magnetic discovery goes back to about 110 B.C., when the earliest magnetic compass was invented by the Chinese. They noticed hat if a “lodestone” (natural magnets of iron-rich ore) was suspended so it could turn freely, it would always point in the same direction, toward the magnetic poles. This directional pointing property of magnetic material was eventually introduced into the making of an early compass and used for maritime navigation . By the 13th century, the directive property of magnetism was widely recognized and used in navigation. The mariner’s magnetic compass is the first technological application of magnetism and, one of the oldest scientific instruments.

Until 1820, the only magnetism known was that of iron magnets and of lodestones. It was the Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, professor at the University of Copenhagen, who, in 1820, was first to discover the relationship between the hitherto separate fields of electricity and magnetism. Ørsted showed that a compass needle was deflected when an electric current passed through a wire, before Faraday had formulated the physical law that carries his name: the magnetic field produced is proportional to the intensity of the current. Magnetostatics is the study of static magnetic fields, i.e. fields which do not vary with time. 19) 20)

Magnetic and electric fields together form the two components of electromagnetism. Electromagnetic waves can move freely through space, and also through most materials at pretty much every frequency band (radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays). Electromagnetic fields therefore combine electric and magnetic force fields that may be natural (the Earth's magnetic field) or man-made (low frequencies such as electric power transmission lines and cables, or higher frequencies such as radio waves (including cell phones) or television (Ref. 21).


Figure 1: The early history of electromagnetic discovery made by scientists throughout the centuries (image credit: ESA, Ref. 15)

Background on the Earth's magnetic field:

The Earth has its own magnetic field, which acts like a giant magnet. Geomagnetism is the name given to the study of this field, which can be roughly described as a centered dipole whose axis is offset from the Earth's axis of rotation by an angle of about 11.5º. This angle varies over time in response to movements in the Earth's core. The angle between the direction of the magnetic and geographic north poles, called the magnetic declination, varies at different points on the Earth's surface. The angle that the magnetic field vector makes with the horizontal plane at any point on the Earth's surface is called the magnetic inclination.

This centered dipole exhibits magnetic field lines that run between the north and south poles. These field lines convergent and lie vertical to the Earth's surface at two points known as the magnetic poles, which are currently located in Canada and Adélie Land. Compass needles align themselves with the magnetic north pole (which corresponds to the south pole of the 'magnet' at the Earth's core).

The Earth's magnetic field is a result of the dynamo effect generated by movements in the planet's core, and is fairly weak at around 0.5 gauss, i.e. 5 x 10-5 tesla (this is the value in Paris, for example). The magnetic north pole actually 'wanders' over the surface of the Earth, changing its location by up to tens of km every year. Despite its weakness, the Earth's dipolar field nevertheless screen the Earth from charged particles and protect all life on the planet from the harmful effects of cosmic radiation. In common with other planets in our solar system, the Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere that shields its surface from solar wind, although this solar wind does manage to distort the Earth's magnetic field lines.

The Earth’s magnetic field shows deviations, called anomalies, from the idealized field of a centered bar magnet. These anomalies can be quite large, affecting areas on a regional scale. One example is the SAA (South Atlantic Anomaly), which affects the amount of cosmic radiation reaching the passengers and crew of any plane and spacecraft led to cross it (Ref. 21).


Figure 2: Artist's view of solar wind interacting with Earth's magnetic field (image credit: DTU Space)


Figure 3: Schematic view of the geomagnetic field, produced mainly by a self-sustaining dynamo in the outer fluid core (image credit: GFZ)


Figure 4: Map of the geomagnetic field strength at the surface of the Earth derived from the model produced using data from the Oersted satellite (image credit: LETI) 21)


Figure 5: Magnetic field contributions (image credit: ESA) 22)

The primary research topics to be addressed by the Swarm mission include: 23)

• Core dynamics, geodynamo processes, and coremantle interaction. - The goal is to improve the models of the core field dynamics by ensuring long-term space observations with an even better spatial and temporal resolution. Combining existing Ørsted, CHAMP and future Swarm observations will also more generally allow the investigation of all magnetohydrodynamic phenomena potentially affecting the core on sub-annual to decadal scales, down to wavelengths of about 2000 km. Of particular interest are those phenomena responsible for field changes that cannot be accounted for by core surface flow models. 24)

• Lithospheric magnetization and its geological interpretation. - The increased resolution of the Swarm satellite constellation will allow, for the first time, the identification from satellite altitude of the oceanic magnetic stripes corresponding to periods of reversing magnetic polarity. Such a global mapping is important because the sparse data coverage in the southern oceans has been a severe limitation regarding our understanding of plate tectonics in the oceanic lithosphere. Another important implication of improved resolution of the lithospheric magnetic field is the possibility to derive global maps of heat flux. 25) 26)

• 3-D electrical conductivity of the mantle. - Our knowledge of the physical and chemical properties of the mantle can be significantly improved if we know its electrical conductivity. Due to the sparse and inhomogeneous distribution of geomagnetic observatories, with only few in oceanic regions, a true global picture of mantle conductivity can only be obtained from space.

• Currents flowing in the magnetosphere and ionosphere. - Simultaneous measurements at different altitudes and local times, as foreseen with the Swarm mission, will allow better separation of internal and external sources, thereby improving geomagnetic field models. In addition to the benefit of internal field research, a better description of the external magnetic field contributions is of direct interest to the science community, in particular for space weather research and applications. The local time distribution of simultaneous data will foster the development of new methods of co-estimating the internal and external contributions.

The secondary research objectives include:

• Identification of the ocean circulation by its magnetic signature. - Moving sea-water produces a magnetic field, the signature of which contributes to the magnetic field at satellite altitude. Based on state-of-the-art ocean circulation and conductivity models it has been demonstrated that the expected field amplitudes are well within the resolution of the Swarm satellites. 27)

• Quantification of the magnetic forcing of the upper atmosphere. - The geomagnetic field exerts a direct control on the dynamics of the ionized and neutral particles in the upper atmosphere, which may even have some influence on the lower atmosphere. With the dedicated set of instruments, each of the Swarm satellites will be able to acquire high-resolution and simultaneous in-situ measurements of the interacting fields and particles, which are the key to understanding the system.

Historic background of Swarm: Ref. 13)

• The first Swarm proposal was made in 1998, prior to launch of the Ørsted mission.

• In early 2002, the Swarm mission was proposed to ESA by Eigil Friis-Christensen of DNSC (Copenhagen, Denmark), Hermann Lühr of GFZ (GeoForschungszentrum, Potsdam, Germany), and Gauthier Hulot of IPG (Institut de Physique du Globe, Paris, France) with support from scientists in seven European countries and the USA. In the meantime, the Swarm team comprises participation of 27 institutes on a global scale. The mission was selected for feasibility studies in 2002. The initial mission proposal considered a Swarm constellation of 4 spacecraft. 28)

• In May 2002 there were three mission candidates: ACE+, EGPM and Swarm; they were chosen for a feasibility study.

• At the end of two parallel feasibility studies, the Swarm mission was selected as the 5th mission in ESA's Earth Explorer Program in May 2004. Phase A was completed in Nov. 2005, resulting in a constellation of 3 spacecraft.

New Concept – Constellation to characterize external sources:

- The external contributions are highly influenced by solar activity and local time

- Simultaneous satellites in different orbital planes are necessary in order to overcome the time-space ambiguity in the measurements. The optimum constellation depends on the scientific objectives.

- But, measurements of high accuracy are not sufficient! A better understanding of the various sources is equally important, in particular when doing measurements with unprecedented precision, where new phenomena appear in the data. For this, additional and independent key information is needed: a) electric field, b) ionospheric conductivity.

• In 2006, the Swarm project was in Phase B, ending with the PDR (Preliminary Design Review) in the summer 2007.

The construction of the Swarm constellation commenced in November 2007 with the Phase C/D kick-off meeting. The Swarm project CDR (Critical Design Review) took place on Oct. 14, 2008 at ESA/ESTEC. 29)


Figure 6: Schematic view of Earth's magnetic field (image credit: ESA/ATG Medialab) 30)

Legend to Figure 6: The magnetic field and electric currents near Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on our everyday lives. Although we know that the magnetic field originates from several sources, exactly how it is generated and why it changes is not yet fully understood. ESA’s Swarm mission will help untangle the complexities of the field.

Space segment concept:

The Swarm mission architecture is driven by the requirement for separation of the various sources contributing to the Earth's magnetic field. Hence, the space segment concept employs a three-minisatellite constellation with the following characteristics:

- Three spacecraft in two different orbital planes, with two satellites in a plane of 84.7º inclination and with one satellite in a plane of 88º inclination

- The two satellites in the 87.4º inclination orbit will fly at a mean altitude of 450 km, their east-west separation will be 1-1.5º, and the maximum differential delay in orbit will be about 10 s.

- The satellite in the higher inclination orbit (88º) will fly at a mean altitude of 530 km.

- The spacecraft require some degree of active orbit maintenance to control the relative positions in the constellation (this is an element of formation flight to support flight operations). 31) 32)

In November 2005, ESA selected EADS Astrium GmbH, Friedrichshafen, Germany as the prime contractor for the Swarm spacecrafts. The Swarm consortium (main subcontractors) consists of: 33)

- EADS Astrium Ltd., UK (mechanical, thermal, AIV)

- GFZ Potsdam, Germany (end-to-end system simulator, calibration & validation)

- DTU Space, Copenhagen, Denmark [level 1b processor and instruments (VFM magnetometer and STR star tracker)]

The spacecraft design is governed by the following requirements:

1) Magnetic cleanliness: magnetometers on deployable boom, non-magnetic materials and caution during handling

2) Magnetic field vector attitude knowledge: ultra-stable connection between VFM (Vector Field Magnetometer) and STR (Star Tracker) assembly on the optical bench

3) Ballistic coefficient: small ram surface in flight direction to minimize air drag

4) Accelerometer proof-mass vs satellite CoG (Center of Gravity) location.


Figure 7: Artist's rendition of the Swarm constellation (image credit: ESA)

An important design measure is the accommodation of the magnetometer package at a distance from the main body/platform sufficient to minimize any magnetic disturbance. A boom ensures a magnetically 'clean' environment and provides very stable accommodation for the magnetometer package. Due to envelope constraints of the launcher fairing, the boom must be deployable. 34)

Optical bench: The vector magnetometer is mounted on an ultra-stable silicon carbide-carbon fiber compound structure (the SWARM optical bench). Both optical bench and scalar magnetometer are installed on a deployable conical tube of square cross section. The position tolerance of the optical bench to its tube interface has to be fixed within 0.2 mm. 35) 36)

The design driver of the composite tube assembly of Swarm is thermal stability. The main cause for observed thermal distortion is the non-uniformity of the cross-sections arising from the different adaptations of the filament winding process in order to manufacture the carbon fiber reinforced structure. The manufacture of the structure required use of thermally controlled high precision bonding jigs to join the composite tubes to the metallic fittings.

The scalar magnetometer and optical bench are fixed to a deployable large beam of square cross section, the SWARM (Carbon-fiber Tube Assembly (CTA) which fulfils the following main functions (Figure 8):

• Separate the sensitive instruments from the spacecraft to comply with the very high magnetic cleanliness requirements

• Provide a suitable stable structure for the fixation of instruments.

The chosen manufacturing technology for the SWARM tube was filament winding. The SWARM tube has a conical taper. Since the amount of fibers in a cross section is constant the tube had two main characteristics: the wall thickness increased linearly from the root to the tip and due to nature of the winding process the fiber angle became steeper at the tip than at the root. The overall effect is a variation of properties along the length of the tube.

The Swarm carbon-fiber tube assembly was subjected to various tests: Thermal distortion was measured by establishing a 65ºC gradient between the tip and the hinge and a 10ºC gradient between opposite sides of the CTA. The hole pattern of the optical bench was accurate to within 0.2 mm (Ref. 35).


Figure 8: The Swarm optical bench, carbon-fiber tube assembly (image credit: RUAG)


Figure 9: Configuration and performance requirements of a Swarm spacecraft (image credit: EADS Astrium)


Figure 10: Configuration details of a Swarm spacecraft (image credit: EADS Astrium)

The three identical Swarm minisatellites consist of the payload and the platform elements. The platform comprises the following subsystems: structure/mechanisms, power, RF communications, AOCS (Attitude and Orbit Control Subsystem), thermal control, and onboard data handling.

The AOCS design is based to a maximum extent on the CryoSat AOCS design of EADS Astrium. The gyro-less AOCS provides 3-axis stabilization with an Earth pointing attitude control in all modes. The requirements call for: 37)

- An attitude pointing control within a band of < 5º about all axis (roll, pitch, and yaw), the pointing stability is < 0.1º/s

- Provision of a sufficient torque capability for launcher tip-off rate damping and attitude acquisition

- Minimize acceleration and magnetic stray field disturbances to scientific instruments

- Provision of a high ΔV capability for orbit & attitude control maneuvers.


Figure 11: Functional architecture of AOCS (image credit: EADS Astrium)

The AOCS is tightly coupled with the propulsion subsystem. Actuation is provided by a cold gas propulsion subsystem, referred to as OCS (Orbit Control Subsystem), and magnetic torquers (used for ΔV maneuvers and to complement the magnetic torquers). The cold gas propulsion system is provided by AMPAC-ISP, UK. - Attitude sensing is provided by a star tracker assembly (3 star tracker heads), 3 magnetometers, and a CESS (Coarse Earth and Sun Sensor) assembly used in safe mode situations and in initial acquisition sequences, respectively (CESS is of CHAMP, GRACE, and TerraSAR-X heritage). A dual frequency GPS receiver (GPSR) is used to provide PPS (Precise Positioning Service) to the OBC and instruments for on-board datation.

Note: the star tracker (STR) assembly and optical bench are described below under a separate heading.

The nominal attitude has a nadir orientation. Rotation maneuvers of S/C about roll, pitch and yaw are used for instrument calibration and orbit Control. The safe mode is Earth-oriented. Pointing requirements are 2º about all axes, with limitations on use of actuators.

The Swarm rate damping design, in support of the critical spacecraft deployment phase, employs magnetic rate damping - magnetometers in combination with magnetic torquers and thrusters - to provide a significantly cheaper implementation than with the use of gyroscopes. From a control theory point-of-view, rate damping with magnetometers using 2-axis measurement is as “safe” as with gyroscopes using 3-axis measurement: Global asymptotical stability is achieved except for the case when the magnetic field does not change. This is only in near-equator orbits possible with perfect field symmetry which is in practice not realistic. The result is confirmed by the evaluation of the observability criterion where no loss of this property could be detected except for the mentioned case. Since SWARM is in a polar inclination orbit, the control concept is considered “clean”. 38)

Rate damping design: The RDM controller is a simple proportional controller on the S/C rate with reference rate zero. The S/C rate is computed by processing and derivation of the FGM measurements. The controller outputs the torque commands for the torquer and the thruster. A dead band for the thruster inhibits the thruster activation for low rates which can be covered by the torque rod.


Figure 12: Schematic of the Swarm RDM controller (image credit: EADS Astrium)

Each spacecraft features 2 propellant tanks, each with a capacity of 30 kg of N2. The thrusters provide thrust levels of 20 and 40 mN. The cold gas thruster system was developed and space qualified by Ampec-ISP, Cheltenham, UK consisting of 24 OCT (Orbit Control Trusters) and 48 ACT (Attitude Control Thrusters) for the Swarm constellation. The assembly and test of Ampac's SVT01 series of cold gas thrusters has included design modifications, full qualification and verification of suitability to operate with a new propellant. In 2010, a set of 72 units has been supplied and integrated into the constellation of three Swarm spacecraft. 39)

A GPS receiver provides the functions of timing and position determination. The spacecraft dry mass is about 370 kg.


Figure 13: Software architecture of AOCS (image credit: EADS Astrium)

EPS (Electrical Power Subsystem): The two body-mounted solar arrays and the varying orbits of the satellites require a MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) system. Important requirements are related to the magnetic cleanliness of the satellites and result in following specific PCDU (Power Conditioning and Distribution Unit) design requirements: 40)

- Minimization of magnetic moment i.e. minimizing of magnetic materials and current loops

- Selection of switching frequencies outside the ‘forbidden’ frequency ranges

- Minimizing spacecraft surface charging by use of negative bus voltage concept (battery + is connected to spacecraft structure).

The PCU part of the PCDU covers all tasks to control the power flow in the unit from the different sources and performs the communication with the OBC (On Board Computer).
During eclipse and battery recharge mode, the bus voltage varies with the state of charge of the battery. In taper charge mode, the bus is controlled by the MEA (Main Error Amplifier) to a predefined (commandable) value.

The main power requirements for the PCDU are defined as follows:

- Solar array input: 0 to -125 V, max. 21 A (each of 2 panels)

- Maximum power per panel: 750 W

- Main bus voltage range -22 V to -34 V

- Maximum battery charge current 24 A

- Continuous discharge current 0 to 14 A.

Maximum discharge current/power up to 0.5 h: 20 A / 440 W.


Figure 14: Architecture of the PCDU (image credit: EADS Astrium)

Negative bus voltage concept: The Swarm satellite requires the positive line of the power system connected to structure. This implies that all bus protection functions have to be allocated in the ‘hot’ negative line. As all essential functions, ( i.e. bus voltage control) need to be independent from the auxiliary supplies, they have to be supplied by the negative bus voltage. Figure 15 shows a principle grounding/power supply diagram of the main functional blocks in the PCDU.

Power control concept: The PCDU uses a simple concept for control of the battery state of charge and the bus voltage:

- Whenever the bus voltage and the charge current are below the limits, the MPPTs are active

- When the either the bus voltage attains the ‘battery end-of-charge voltage or the battery attains the charge current limit, the MEA (Main Error Amplifier) supersedes the tracker operation.

A bus overvoltage detection logic has been implemented in the PCDU, which performs a rapid ramp-down of the solar regulator current by using hysteresis control.

The MEA is composed of 3 identical separated control stages and a majority voter. Each control stage has a dedicated set of sensors and receives the relevant set commands for the bus voltage via redundant internal control busses. The charge current limitation is implemented in a ‘cascade configuration’, using the output of the current error amplifier as a set signal for the voltage amplifier. This assures a low and constant bus impedance during all MEA control modes. The implementation of the regulation concept is given in Figure 16.


Figure 15: Grounding scheme of the Swarm PCDU (image credit: EADS Astrium)


Figure 16: Schematic of the bus control concept (image credit: EADS Astrium)

Spacecraft mass

Dry mass of ~369 kg
Cold gas propellant: 99 kg of CF4 (Freon)
Total mass = 468 kg

Spacecraft dimensions

Length: 9.1 m; width: 1.5 m (S/C body); height: 0.85 m; ram surface: ~0.7 m2

Boom length

5.1 m


- 3-axis stabilized; magnetometers; CESS; GPS; STR, magnetorquers; thrusters
- 3D position better than 20 m (3σ)
- 3D velocity better than 1 m/s (3σ)
- UTC time with respect to GPS system time
- Datation of PPS signal better than 0.5 µs (3σ)

AOCS sensors

AOCS actuators

- STR (Star Tracker) with 3 sensor heads
- 1 CESS (Coarse Earth & Sun Sensor) with 6 heads placed orthogonal on the S/C
and 3 Magnetometers (FGM) which can be used for rates up to 0.5º/s.
- 3 MTQ (Magnetic Torquer), each 10 Am2
- 24 Cold Gas Thruster (THR), of which 2 x 8 for attitude control in all 3 axes, each 20 mN
force and 2 x 4 for orbit control, placed in -x and +y direction, each 50 mN force
- MTQs and THRs are used by each control mode

AOCS control modes

- Rate damping: rates are measured by the FGMs, main actuation by THR
- Coarse pointing: power and thermal safe Earth pointing attitude using CESS
- Fine pointing: STR and GPSR are used for attitude and position knowledge
- Orbit Control: similar to FPM, additionally performing slews for instrument calibration
and for orbit change and maintenance which requires using orbit control thruster.

EPS (Electrical Power Subsystem)

Total power: 608 W nominal; solar cells: GaAs triple junction; solar panel positive grounding; a set of batteries: Li-ion with a capacity of 48 Ah

RF communications

S-band; downlink data rate: 6 Mbit/s; 4 kbit/s uplink, data volume: 1.8 Gbit/day; 1 dump/day to Kiruna ground station, data storage capability: 2 x 16 Gbit

Mission duration

3 months of commissioning followed by 4 years of nominal operations

Table 1: Overview of spacecraft parameters

RF communications: S-band for TT&C spacecraft monitoring services and for science data transmission.


Figure 17: Artist's rendition of the Swarm constellation in orbit (image credit: EADS Astrium)


Figure 18: Photo of the three Swarm satellites at the launch site (image credit: ESA)


Figure 19: The Swarm satellites separated by a few centimeters (image credit: ESA, M. Shafiq)

Legend to Figure 19: Attached to the tailor-made launch adapter, the three Swarm satellites sit just centimeters apart. This novel part of the rocket keeps the satellites upright within the fairing during launch and allows them to be injected simultaneously into orbit. 41)

DBA (Deployable Boom Assembly): The Swarm DBA, consisting of a 4.3m long CFRP tube and a hinge assembly, is designed to perform this function by deploying the CFRP tube plus the instruments mounted on it. mounted on a 4.3m long deployable boom. Deployment is initiated by releasing 3 HDRMs (Hold Down Release Mechanisms) , once released the boom oscillates back and forth on a pair of pivots, similar to a restaurant kitchen door hinge, for around 120 seconds before coming to rest on 3 kinematic mounts which are used to provide an accurate reference location in the deployed position. The motion of the boom is damped through a combination of friction, spring hysteresis and flexing of the 120+ cables crossing the hinge. Considerable development work and accurate numerical modelling of the hinge motion was required to predict performance across a wide temperature range and ensure that during the 1st overshoot the boom did not damage itself, the harness or the spacecraft. - Due to the magnetic cleanliness requirements of the spacecraft, no magnetic materials could be used in the design of the hardware. 42)

Launch: The Swarm constellation was launched on Nov. 22, 2013 (12:02:29 UTC) on a Rockot vehicle from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia. The launch was provided by Eurockot Launch Services. Some 91 minutes after liftoff, the Breeze-KM upper stage released the three satellites into a near-polar circular orbit at an altitude of 490 km. 43) 44) 45) 46) 47)

The launch was planned for the fall of 2012, but due to the recent Breeze-M (Briz-M) failure the launch was postponed to permit proper investigations of the cause. In Nov. 2012, ESA is still expecting, from the Russian Ministry of Defence, the launch manifest for the year 2012/13 for Rockot launchers indicating the launch date for Swarm. 48) 49)

Note: Rockot, a converted SS-19 ballistic missile, has been grounded since February 1, 2011 when the Rockot vehicle with the Breeze-KM upper stage failed to place the Russian government’s GEO-IK2 geodesy satellite of 1400 kg (Kosmos 2470) into its intended orbit of 1000 km. However, in the meantime, the Rockot/Breeze-KM vehicle demonstrated its reliability by lifting 4 Russian spacecraft (Gonets-M No.3, Gonets-M No.4, Strela-3/Rodnik, and Yubileiny-2/MiR) successfully into orbit on July 28, 2012.

On April 9, 2010, ESA awarded a contract to Eurockot, for the launch of two of its Earth observation missions. The contract covers the launch of ESA's Swarm magnetic-field mission and a 'ticket' for one other mission, yet to be decided. Both will take place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia using a Rockot/Breeze-KM launcher. Eurockot is based in Bremen, Germany and is a joint venture between Astrium and the Khrunichev Space Center, Moscow. 50) 51) 52) 53)

After release from a single launcher, a side-by-side flying lower pair of satellites at an initial altitude of 460 km and a single higher satellite at 530 km will form the Swarm constellation. The constellation deployment and maintenance require a total ΔV effort of about 100 m/s.

In LEOP (Launch and Early Orbit Phase), at least three ground stations will be involved. LEOP is expected to last 3 days for the full activation of the satellites, followed by an orbit acquisition phase of up to three months. In parallel with the orbit acquisition phase, the commissioning phase will start in order to check out all satellite subsystems and the payload. The commissioning phase is currently expected to last three months. After the commissioning phase the nominal mission phase of 4 year starts.

Orbits of the Swarm constellation:

Accurate determination and separation of the large-scale magnetospheric field, which is essential for better separation of core and lithospheric fields, and for induction studies, requires that the orbital planes of the spacecraft are separated by 3 to 9 hours in local time. For improving the resolution of lithospheric magnetization mapping, the satellites should fly at low altitudes - thus experiencing some drag, but commensurate with the goals of a multi-year mission lifetime. The three satellites are being flown in 3 orbital planes with 2 different near-polar inclinations to provide a mutual orbital drift over time (Figure 20 and 21).

• Two satellites (Swarm A+B) are in a similar plane of 87.4º inclination. The satellite pair of 87.4º inclination will fly at a mean altitude of 450 km, their east-west separation shall be 1-1.4º, and the maximal differential delay in orbit shall be about 10 s. The formation-flying aspects concern the satellite pair, a side-by-side formation, requiring some formation maintenance.

• One higher orbit satellite (Swarm C) in a circular orbit with 88º inclination at an initial altitude of 530 km. The right ascension of the ascending node is drifting somewhat slower than the two other satellites, thus building up a difference of 9 hours in local time after 4 years.

Note: Due to ASM instrument problems on Swarm-C (Charlie), it was decided prior to launch to place Charlie with Alpha on the lower orbit, and Bravo on the higher orbit.


Swarm-A (Alpha)

Swarm-C (Charlie)

Swarm-B (Bravo)

Orbital altitude

≤ 460 km (initial altitude of satellite pair)

≤ 530 km

Orbital inclination



ΔRAAN (Right Ascension of Ascending Node)

1.4º difference between A and B

~0-135º difference
wrt mean plane of A/B
(continuous drift)

Mean anomaly at epoch

Δt = 2-10 s difference between A and B


LTAN evolution (Figure 20, right-hand side)

24 hours of local time coverage every 7-10 months
9 hours of separation between lower pair and upper satellite at end of life

Table 2: Overview of the Swarm orbit configuration


Figure 20: Orbit altitude projection over mission time (left); Local time evolution of the S/C in two orbital planes (right), image credit: DTU Space


Figure 21: Equatorial projection of the Swarm orbit configuration over time (image credit: DTU Space) 54) 55)


Figure 22: Polar projection of the Swarm orbit configuration over time (image credit: ESA)


Figure 23: The Swarm tandem pair provides a stereo view (image credit: DTU Space)

Swarm mission orbit update information as of March 2017

The following 8 Figures (Figure 24 to 32), dealing with the Swarm constellation flight dynamics, were provided by Detlef Sieg of ESA. They were presented at the 4th Swarm Science Meeting & Geodetic Workshop in Banff, Canada. 56)


Figure 24: Swarm mission orbit update as of March 2017 (image credit: ESA)


Figure 25: LTAN evolution: Rotation of the orbital plane (image credit: ESA)


Figure 26: Predicted Solar Activity: Solar radiative flux and geomagnetic activity, past and predicted (image credit: NASA/MSFC)


Figure 27: Observed and Predicted Altitude Evolution (image credit: ESA)


Figure 28: ΔLTAN A/C versus B (image credit: ESA)


Figure 29: Lower pair satellites, along track separation (image credit: ESA)


Figure 30: Lower pair satellites, semi major axis difference (image credit: ESA)


Figure 31: Fuel consumption of the Swarm constellation (image credit: ESA)


Figure 32: Orbit change fuel cost of the Swarm constellation (image credit: ESA)

Mission status

• July 9, 2021: Using measurements from ESA’s Earth Explorer Swarm mission, scientists have developed a new tool that links the strength and direction of the magnetic field to the flight paths of migrating birds. This is a huge step forward to understanding how animals use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate vast distances. 57)

- These days, it is almost unimaginable for us to set off on a long journey without being equipped with some form of satellite navigation, or at least a map. Migratory animals, however, manage to cross entire oceans and continents, navigating with exceptional skills of their own. In spite of decades of research, we still do not understand fully how these remarkable animals are able to find their way – although it has been suspected that Earth’s magnetic field lines are among the cues that guide them.

- Recent advances in GPS and the miniaturization of tracking devices have allowed ecologists to tag migratory animals, from birds to whales, to understand how they travel from A to B. However, while animal tracking data are now common, little investigation has been made into how animals respond to real geomagnetic conditions, since the magnetic field changes continuously across the globe, particularly during geomagnetic storms.

- Until recently, there was no way to assess accurately the strength of the magnetic field at the time and location that animals pass by, which would allow ecologists to study how they use this natural force for navigation.


Figure 33: Using measurements from ESA’s Swarm mission, scientists have developed a new tool that links the strength and direction of the magnetic field to the flight paths of migrating birds, such as greater white-fronted geese. This is a huge step forward to understanding how animals use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate vast distances (image credit: OtsoTA/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

- However, a new tool allows ecologists, for the first time, to compute the strength and direction of the magnetic field along animal migratory paths.

- Developed by spatial data scientists from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in collaboration with researchers from the British Geological Survey and Canada’s University of Western Ontario, the new tool combines data from ESA’s Swarm magnetic field mission with data stored in Movebank. Movebank is a free database of millions of locations and times of birds and mammals, such as bats and whales, on the move.

- The research, which has been published recently in Movement Ecology, explains how the values were computed and gives examples applied to greater white-fronted geese, which fly from Siberia to Germany on their autumn migration. 58)


Figure 34: Geomagnetic intensity along migratory paths of white-fronted geese. The image shows the values of geomagnetic intensity that the geese encountered on their journeys. These maps show real values that the geese encountered on their migration from Siberia to Germany (image credit: Urška Demšar, University of St Andrews)

- Developed by spatial data scientists from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in collaboration with researchers from the British Geological Survey and Canada’s University of Western Ontario, the new tool combines data from ESA’s Swarm magnetic field mission with data stored in Movebank. Movebank is a free database of millions of locations and times of birds and mammals, such as bats and whales, on the move.

- Urška Demšar, from the University of St Andrews, explains, “We used the time and GPS locations of the animal to find the nearest Swarm data. This then let us compute the expected magnetic field at the animal’s location due to the magnetic field generated by Earth’s core, and accounted for local influence from the geology and the instantaneous effect of the ionosphere and magnetosphere.


Figure 35: Data from Swarm overpasses with GPS tracking points of migratory animals (image credit: Urška Demšar, University of St Andrews)

- “These contributions were summed and appended to the GPS data, including Swarm measurements from the nearest satellite flyovers for each GPS location. This gives us the best possible estimate of the magnetic field at the animal’s location.”

- This new research means that the study of animal movement can now combine tracking data with geophysical information and lead to new insights on migration behavior.

- This is demonstrated in the Movement Ecology paper by a small biological example, which shows that during geomagnetic storms, the geese were affected and generally veered away from the straight migratory direction towards the North. This is just a small example that cannot yet be generalized, but it shows the possibilities that are now open for study of animal migration with contemporaneous real magnetic data.

- Without the availability of Swarm data, models and the supporting software (viresclient), it would not have been possible to create such an easy-to-use tool for analysis.

- “This is the first direct use of Swarm data in ecology and so represents an exciting new avenue of research between geophysicists, spatial data scientists and ecologists,” notes Ciarán Beggan from the British Geological Survey.

- Dr Demšar emphasizes that, “Adding in a new set of magnetic data will allow us to explore how animals migrate using a whole new set of environmental parameters that was unavailable before Swarm.”


Figure 36: Swarm compasses. Like '3D compasses', the Swarm satellites measure the strength and direction of Earth's magnetic field (image credit: ESA/ATG Medialab)

• May 18, 2021: We are all familiar with the bolts of lightning that accompany heavy storms. While these flashes originate in storm clouds and strike downwards, a much more elusive type forms higher up in the atmosphere and shoots up towards space. So, what are the chances of somebody taking photographs of these rarely seen, brief ‘transient luminous events’ at the exact same time as a satellite orbits directly above with the event leaving its signature in the satellite’s data? 59)

- The likelihood of this happening might seem pretty remote, but, remarkably, an observer for the Czech Institute of Atmospheric Physics who is also an avid ‘lightning hunter’ has taken photographs of these transient luminous events that not only coincide with measurements taken by ESA’s Swarm satellite mission, but also with recordings taken from the ground.

- This extraordinary three-way coincidence is leading to better insight into how this type of lightning propagates into space. In addition, these new findings could potentially improve scientific models of the ionized part of Earth’s upper atmosphere – the ionosphere.

- Transient luminous events are optical phenomena that occur high up in the atmosphere and they are linked to electrical activity in underlying thunderstorms. They are very brief, lasting from less than a millisecond to two seconds, and rarely seen from the ground. They are usually only captured by sensitive photographic equipment and, because they emit weak light, photographs can only be taken at night.


Figure 37: Sprites seen over the Czech Republic and detected by Swarm. This photograph of lightning sprites was taken from the Czech Republic in August 2017 and it was the first time that an event of this type left its signature simultaneously in satellite data. Two of ESA’s Swarm satellites registered perturbations in their magnetic field data as they passed over Poland. The distance between the ground tracks of the satellites and the center of the storm was about 500 km. The event caused fluctuations in the scalar magnetic field with amplitudes reaching 0.2 nT. Now a scientific paper has been published about using Swarm to help provide evidence of links between transient luminous events and magnetic-field fluctuations in the upper ionosphere (image credit: M. Popek) 60)

- There are several different types of transient luminous events such as sprites, jets and elves, each with their own characteristics.

Figure 38: Sprite in a flash. Sprites and presides filmed in the countryside near Nýdek in the Czech Republic. Although ESA’s Swarm mission did not record this particular event, the video shows how quick these transient luminous events are. Remarkably, during similar events, photographs have been taken from the ground at the exact same time as the event was recorded in the Swarm mission’s data, leading to better insight into how this type of lightning propagates into space (image credit: M. Popek)

- Sprites, for example are large electrical discharges that occur at an altitude of around 50–90 km, above large thunderstorm systems. They appear as large, but weak flashes of red and usually happen at the same time as the cloud-to-ground lightning we all know.

- Scientists have long been interested in understanding if lightning propagating to higher in the ionosphere can cause fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field. The ionosphere is very active part of the atmosphere, responding to the energy it absorbs from the Sun. Gases in the ionosphere are excited by solar radiation to form ions, which have an electrical charge.

- Ewa Slominska, from a small company cooperating with Poland’s Space Research Centre, explained, “Lightning can generate ultralow frequency fluctuations that leak into the upper ionosphere. This means that some lightning bolts are so powerful that they trigger disturbances in Earth's magnetic field and propagate hundreds of kilometers upwards from the thunderstorm, reaching the altitude of Swarm’s orbit.

- “Although Swarm’s main goal is to measure slow changes in the magnetic field, it is apparent that the mission can also detect fast fluctuations in the field. However, Swarm can only do this if one of the satellites is in close proximity to the active thunderstorm and if the lightning is strong enough.”

- Janusz Mlynarczyk, from AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, added, “Using the three stations of the WERA system, we are able to locate powerful atmospheric discharges that occur anywhere on Earth and reconstruct their most important physical parameters. This is possible because of a very low attenuation of Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) electromagnetic waves that these discharges generate.

- “Powerful ELF waves can even propagate around the world a few times and still be visible in our recordings. Such powerful sources include sprite-associated discharges. The accumulated electrostatic energy released and observed by Swarm was close to 120 GJ, which is equivalent to the energy released in the detonation of 29 tons of TNT.

- “Although we know that every lightning strike carries a lot of energy, it is clear that this class of lightning is much more powerful. A single bolt of ordinary lightning, which is invisible to Swarm’s instruments, carries enough energy to charge 20 electric cars, but the energy produced by a transient luminous event would be enough to charge more than 800 vehicles.”

- A remarkable aspect to all of this is that one of the scientific team members, Martin Popek, is passionate about capturing sprites, jets and elves on camera. His photographs are proving a very valuable to the team’s research as they have coincided with measurements taken by Swarm and by the ground array.

- ESA’s Swarm mission scientist, Roger Haagmans, commented, “It’s astonishing that Martin manages to capture such fleeting events on camera, but what’s really remarkable is that his dedication to this kind of photography has coincided with measurements from our Swarm mission. His photos add another dimension to the research and we are certainly reaping the benefits of his commitment to hanging outside in the cold and dark!”


Figure 39: Sprites and presides over the Czech Republic. Sprites and presides observed in the countryside near Nýdek. Although ESA’s Swarm mission did not record this particular event, the photo, taken by Martin Popek, shows how breathtaking these transient luminous events (TLEs) are. Martin first captured TLEs on 22 May 2011 and has since observed 3781 events – most of which were in 2017. The average number of TLEs per active storm is 9.87 and 11.28 per observation night. More images can be found on Martin’s webpage.

• March 9, 2021: For the first time, an international team of scientists has used magnetic data from ESA’s Swarm satellite mission together with aeromagnetic data to help reveal the mysteries of the geology hidden beneath Antarctica’s kilometers-thick ice sheets, and link Antarctica better to its former neighbors. 61)

- Not only is Antarctic sub-ice geology important to understand global supercontinent cycles over billions of years that have shaped Earth’s evolution, it is also pivotal to comprehend how the solid Earth itself influences the Antarctic ice sheet above it.

- The research team from Germany’s Kiel University, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics, and Witwatersrand University in South Africa has today published their findings in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. 62)

- Their new study shows that combining satellite and aeromagnetic data provides a key missing link to connect Antarctica’s hidden geology with formerly adjacent continents, namely Australia, India and South Africa – keystones of Gondwana.

- The fact that Antarctica is about as remote as you can get and the land below is covered by a massive ice sheet, makes collecting geophysical information both challenging and expensive. Fortunately, satellites orbiting above can see where humans cannot.

Figure 40: Antarctica linked magnetically to old neighbors. For the first time, an international team of scientists has used magnetic data from ESA’s Swarm mission together with aeromagnetic datasets to help unveil the mysteries of the geology that underlies Antarctica’s kilometers-thick ice sheets. Their findings compare well with the geology of formerly adjacent continents, namely Australia, India and South Africa, which were once part of the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. Using the new magnetic data, the animation illustrates this movement of the tectonic plates over millions of years (video credit: Kiel University, Peter Haas)

- Thanks to magnetic data from the Swarm mission along with airborne measurements, scientists are paving the way towards understanding Earth’s least accessible continent. This new research links Antarctica to its ancient neighbors with which it has shared a long tectonic history – and that needs piecing together like a jigsaw puzzle.

- The team processed aeromagnetic data from aircraft from over southern Africa, Australia and Antarctica in a consistent manner with the help of Swarm satellite magnetic data.

- Aeromagnetic data do not cover everywhere on Earth, so magnetic models complied from Swarm data help to fill the blanks, especially over India were aeromagnetic data are still not widely available. Furthermore, satellite data help to homogenize the airborne data, which were acquired over a period of more than 60 years with varying accuracy and resolution.

- Jörg Ebbing, from Kiel University, explains, “With the available data, we only had pieces of the puzzle. Only when we put them together with satellite magnetic data, can we see the full picture.”

- The resulting combined datasets provide a new tool for the international scientific community to study the cryptic sub-ice geology of Antarctica, including its influence on the overlying ice sheets.

- Gondwana was an amalgam of continents that incorporated South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. As the tectonic plates collided in the Precambrian and early Cambrian times some 600–500 million years ago, they built huge mountain ranges comparable to the modern Himalayas and Alps. This supercontinent started to breakup in the early Jurassic, about 180 million years ago, ultimately leaving Antarctica stranded and isolated at the South Pole, and covered in ice for around 34 million years.

- “Using the new magnetic data, our animation illustrates how the tectonic plates have moved over millions of years after the breakup of Gondwana,” explains Peter Haas, PhD student at Kiel University.

- Fausto Ferraccioli, Director of Geophysics at the National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics in Italy, and also affiliated with the British Antarctic Survey, said, “We have been trying to piece together the connections between Antarctica and other continents for decades. We knew that magnetic data play a pivotal role because one can peer beneath the thick Antarctic ice sheet to help extrapolate the geology exposed along the coast into the continent interior.

- “But now we can do much better. With the satellite and aeromagnetic data combined, we can look down deeper into the crust. Together with tectonic plate reconstructions, we can start building tantalizing new magnetic views of the crust to help connect geological and geophysical studies in widely separated continents. Ancient cratons and orogens in Africa, India, Australia and East Antarctica are now better connected magnetically than ever before.”

- ESA’s Roger Haagmans, said, “This research has been carried out within ESA’s Science for Society 3D Earth study where we are using gravity data from the GOCE mission and magnetic data from the Swam mission to understand the structure and dynamic processes deep within Earth. In this instance, Swarm’s magnetic data have played a starring role.”


Figure 41: Swarm is ESA's first Earth observation constellation of satellites. The three identical satellites are launched together on one rocket. Two satellites orbit almost side-by-side at the same altitude – initially at about 460 km, descending to around 300 km over the lifetime of the mission. The third satellite is in a higher orbit, at 530 km, and at a slightly different inclination. The satellites’ orbits drift, resulting in the upper satellite crossing the path of the lower two at an angle of 90° in the third year of operations. - The different orbits along with the satellites’ various instruments optimize magnetic data sampling in space and time, distinguishing between the effects of different sources and strengths of magnetism. - The three-satellite Swarm mission aims to unravel one of the most mysterious aspects of our planet: the magnetic field. - The magnetic field protects our planet from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth via the solar wind. Without this protective shield, the atmosphere as we know it would not exist, rendering life on Earth virtually impossible. - By analyzing the different characteristics of the field, the mission will provide new insights into many natural processes, from those occurring deep inside the planet to weather in space caused by solar activity. In turn, this information will yield a better understanding of why the magnetic field is weakening. - Swarm is ESA’s fourth Earth Explorer mission, following GOCE, SMOS and CryoSat (image credit: ESA–P. Carril, 2013)

• January 12, 2021: Using information from ESA’s Swarm satellite constellation, scientists have made a discovery about how energy generated by electrically-charged particles in the solar wind flows into Earth’s atmosphere – surprisingly, more of it heads towards the magnetic north pole than towards the magnetic south pole. 63)

- The Sun bathes our planet with the light and heat to sustain life, but it also bombards us with dangerous charged particles in the solar wind. These charged particles have the potential to damage communication networks, navigation systems such as GPS and satellites. Severe solar storms can even cause power outages, such as the major blackout that Quebec in Canada suffered in 1989.

- Our magnetic field largely shields us from this onslaught.

- Generated mainly by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core around 3000 km beneath our feet, Earth’s magnetic field is like a huge bubble protecting us from cosmic radiation and the charged particles carried by powerful winds that escape the Sun’s gravitational pull and sweep across the Solar System.

Figure 42: Space weather could be worse in the north. The constant flow of material – the solar wind – intensifies after a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection. Earth’s magnetic field shields us from harmful electrically-charged particles in solar wind, but also causes some particles in space to be accelerated along magnetic field lines towards the magnetic poles. The aurorae offer visual displays of these charged particles as they hit the outer atmosphere of the planet. Instead of a symmetrical distribution of energy between the northern and southern hemispheres through the year, scientists have used data from ESA’s Swarm mission, to discover that electromagnetic energy is preferentially channelled to the northern hemisphere (video credit: ESA/Planetary Visions)

- Like a bar magnet, Earth’s magnetic field at the surface is defined by the north and south poles that align loosely with the axis of rotation.

- The aurorae offer visual displays of the consequences of charged particles from the Sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field.

- Until now, it was assumed the same amount of electromagnetic energy would reach both hemispheres. However, a paper, published in Nature Communications, describes how research led by scientists from the University of Alberta in Canada used data from ESA’s Swarm mission to discover, unexpectedly, that the electromagnetic energy transported by space weather clearly prefers the north. 64)

- These new findings suggest that in addition to shielding Earth from incoming solar radiation, the magnetic field also actively controls how the energy is distributed and channelled into the upper atmosphere.

- The paper’s lead author, Ivan Pakhotin who is carrying out this research as part of ESA’s Living Planet Fellowship, explains, “Because the south magnetic pole is further away from Earth’s spin axis than the north magnetic pole, an asymmetry is imposed on how much energy makes its way down towards Earth in the north and south. There seems to be a differential reflection of electromagnetic plasma waves, known as Alfven waves.

- “We are not yet sure what the effects of this asymmetry might be, but it could also indicate a possible asymmetry in space weather and perhaps also between the Aurora Australis in the south and the Aurora Borealis in the north. Our findings also suggest that the dynamics of upper-atmospheric chemistry may vary between the hemispheres, especially during times of strong geomagnetic activity.”

- Ian Mann from the University of Alberta said, “The Sun’s activity, such as mass coronal ejections, can have potentially serious consequences for our modern way of living. Therefore, studying the underlying physics of space weather and the complexities of our magnetic field is very important to building up early warning systems and designing electrical grids better able to withstand the disturbances the Sun throws at us.

- “We are fortunate that we have ESA’s three Swarm satellites in orbit, delivering key information that is not only vital for our scientific research, but can also lead to some very practical solutions for our daily lives.”

- In orbit since 2013, the three identical Swarm satellites have not only returned information about how our magnetic field protects us from the dangerous particles in solar wind, but about how the field is generated, how it varies and how the position of magnetic north is changing.

• August 17, 2020: A small but evolving dent in Earth’s magnetic field can cause big headaches for satellites. -Earth’s magnetic field acts like a protective shield around the planet, repelling and trapping charged particles from the Sun. But over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean, an unusually weak spot in the field – called the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) – allows these particles to dip closer to the surface than normal. Particle radiation in this region can knock out onboard computers and interfere with the data collection of satellites that pass through it – a key reason why NASA scientists want to track and study the anomaly. 65)

- The South Atlantic Anomaly is also of interest to NASA’s Earth scientists who monitor the changes in magnetic field strength there, both for how such changes affect Earth's atmosphere and as an indicator of what's happening to Earth's magnetic fields, deep inside the globe.

- Currently, the SAA creates no visible impacts on daily life on the surface. However, recent observations and forecasts show that the region is expanding westward and continuing to weaken in intensity. It is also splitting – recent data shows the anomaly’s valley, or region of minimum field strength, has split into two lobes, creating additional challenges for satellite missions.

- A host of NASA scientists in geomagnetic, geophysics, and heliophysics research groups observe and model the SAA, to monitor and predict future changes – and help prepare for future challenges to satellites and humans in space.

Figure 43: Earth’s magnetic field acts like a protective shield around the planet, repelling and trapping charged particles from the Sun. But over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean, an unusually weak spot in the field – called the South Atlantic Anomaly, or SAA – allows these particles to dip closer to the surface than normal. Currently, the SAA creates no visible impacts on daily life on the surface. However, recent observations and forecasts show that the region is expanding westward and continuing to weaken in intensity. The South Atlantic Anomaly is also of interest to NASA’s Earth scientists who monitor the changes in magnetic strength there, both for how such changes affect Earth's atmosphere and as an indicator of what's happening to Earth's magnetic fields, deep inside the globe (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

It’s what’s inside that counts

- The South Atlantic Anomaly arises from two features of Earth’s core: The tilt of its magnetic axis, and the flow of molten metals within its outer core.

- Earth is a bit like a bar magnet, with north and south poles that represent opposing magnetic polarities and invisible magnetic field lines encircling the planet between them. But unlike a bar magnet, the core magnetic field is not perfectly aligned through the globe, nor is it perfectly stable. That’s because the field originates from Earth’s outer core: molten, iron-rich and in vigorous motion 1800 miles below the surface. These churning metals act like a massive generator, called the geodynamo, creating electric currents that produce the magnetic field.

- As the core motion changes over time, due to complex geodynamic conditions within the core and at the boundary with the solid mantle up above, the magnetic field fluctuates in space and time too. These dynamical processes in the core ripple outward to the magnetic field surrounding the planet, generating the SAA and other features in the near-Earth environment – including the tilt and drift of the magnetic poles, which are moving over time. These evolutions in the field, which happen on a similar time scale to the convection of metals in the outer core, provide scientists with new clues to help them unravel the core dynamics that drive the geodynamo.

- “The magnetic field is actually a superposition of fields from many current sources,” said Terry Sabaka, a geophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Regions outside of the solid Earth also contribute to the observed magnetic field. However, he said, the bulk of the field comes from the core.

- The forces in the core and the tilt of the magnetic axis together produce the anomaly, the area of weaker magnetism – allowing charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field to dip closer to the surface.

- The Sun expels a constant outflow of particles and magnetic fields known as the solar wind and vast clouds of hot plasma and radiation called coronal mass ejections. When this solar material streams across space and strikes Earth’s magnetosphere, the space occupied by Earth’s magnetic field, it can become trapped and held in two donut-shaped belts around the planet called the Van Allen Belts. The belts restrain the particles to travel along Earth’s magnetic field lines, continually bouncing back and forth from pole to pole. The innermost belt begins about 400 miles from the surface of Earth, which keeps its particle radiation a healthy distance from Earth and its orbiting satellites.

- However, when a particularly strong storm of particles from the Sun reaches Earth, the Van Allen belts can become highly energized and the magnetic field can be deformed, allowing the charged particles to penetrate the atmosphere.

- “The observed SAA can be also interpreted as a consequence of weakening dominance of the dipole field in the region,” said 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 pothole in space

- Although the South Atlantic Anomaly arises from processes inside Earth, it has effects that reach far beyond Earth’s surface. The region can be hazardous for low-Earth orbit satellites that travel through it. If a satellite is hit by a high-energy proton, it can short-circuit and cause an event called SEU (Single Event Upset). This can cause the satellite’s function to glitch temporarily or can cause permanent damage if a key component is hit. In order to avoid losing instruments or an entire satellite, operators commonly shut down non-essential components as they pass through the SAA. Indeed, NASA's ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) regularly travels through the region and so the mission keeps constant tabs on the SAA's position.

- The International Space Station, which is in low-Earth orbit, also passes through the SAA. It is well protected, and astronauts are safe from harm while inside. However, the ISS has other passengers affected by the higher radiation levels: Instruments like the GEDI (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation) mission, collect data from various positions on the outside of the ISS. The SAA causes “blips” on GEDI’s detectors and resets the instrument’s power boards about once a month, said Bryan Blair, the mission’s deputy principal investigator and instrument scientist, and a lidar instrument scientist at Goddard.

- “These events cause no harm to GEDI,” Blair said. “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 measuring the SAA’s magnetic field strength, NASA scientists have also studied the particle radiation in the region with the SAMPEX (Solar, Anomalous, and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer) – the first of NASA’s Small Explorer missions, launched in 1992 and providing observations until 2012. One study, led by NASA heliophysicist Ashley Greeley as part of her doctoral thesis, used two decades of data from SAMPEX to show that the SAA is slowly but steadily drifting in a northwesterly direction. The results helped confirm models created from geomagnetic measurements and showed how the SAA’s location changes as the geomagnetic field evolves.

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

- Greeley’s results, published in the journal Space Weather, were also able to provide a clear picture of the type and amount of particle radiation satellites receive when passing through the SAA, which emphasized the need for continuing monitoring in the region.

- The information Greeley and her collaborators garnered from SAMPEX’s in-situ measurements has also been useful for satellite design. Engineers for the Low-Earth Orbit, or LEO, satellite used the results to design systems that would prevent a latch-up event from causing failure or loss of the spacecraft.

Modeling a safer future for satellites

- In order to understand how the SAA is changing and to prepare for future threats to satellites and instruments, Sabaka, Kuang and their colleagues use observations and physics to contribute to global models of Earth’s magnetic field.

- The team assesses the current state of the magnetic field using data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm constellation, previous missions from agencies around the world, and ground measurements. Sabaka’s team teases apart the observational data to separate out its source before passing it on to Kuang’s team. They combine the sorted data from Sabaka’s team with their core dynamics model to forecast geomagnetic secular variation (rapid changes in the magnetic field) into the future.

- The geodynamo models are unique in their ability to use core physics to create near-future forecasts, said 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 said. “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 contributed to is the IGRF (International Geomagnetic Reference Field). Used for a variety of research from the core to the boundaries of the atmosphere, the IGRF is a collection of candidate models made by worldwide research teams that describe Earth’s magnetic field and track how it changes 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 said. “Because that’s what helps us make models and predictions.”

- The changing SAA provides researchers new opportunities to understand Earth’s core, and how its dynamics influence other aspects of the Earth system, said Kuang. By tracking this slowly evolving “dent” in the magnetic field, researchers can better understand the way our planet is changing and help prepare for a safer future for satellites.


Figure 44: This stereoscopic visualization shows a simple model of the Earth's magnetic field. The magnetic field partially shields the Earth from harmful charged particles emanating from the Sun (image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

• May 20, 2020: In an area stretching from Africa to South America, Earth’s magnetic field is gradually weakening. This strange behavior has geophysicists puzzled and is causing technical disturbances in satellites orbiting Earth. Scientists are using data from ESA’s Swarm constellation to improve our understanding of this area known as the ‘South Atlantic Anomaly.’ 66)

Figure 45: The South Atlantic Anomaly refers to an area where our protective shield is weak. This animation shows the magnetic field strength at Earth’s surface from 2014-2020 based on data collected by the Swarm satellite constellation (video credit: Division of Geomagnetism, DTU Space)

- Earth’s magnetic field is vital to life on our planet. It is a complex and dynamic force that protects us from cosmic radiation and charged particles from the Sun. The magnetic field is largely generated by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core around 3000 km beneath our feet. Acting as a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, it creates electrical currents, which in turn, generate our continuously changing electromagnetic field.

- This field is far from static and varies both in strength and direction. For example, recent studies have shown that the position of the north magnetic pole is changing rapidly.

- Over the last 200 years, the magnetic field has lost around 9% of its strength on a global average. A large region of reduced magnetic intensity has developed between Africa and South America and is known as the South Atlantic Anomaly.

Figure 46: The South Atlantic Anomaly refers to an area where our protective shield is weak. White dots on the map indicate individual events when Swarm instruments registered the impact of radiation from April 2014 to August 2019. The background is the magnetic field strength at the satellite altitude of 450 km (video credit: Division of Geomagnetism, DTU Space)

- From 1970 to 2020, the minimum field strength in this area has dropped from around 24,000 nanoteslas (nT) to 22,000, while at the same time the area of the anomaly has grown and moved westward at a pace of around 20 km per year. Over the past five years, a second center of minimum intensity has emerged southwest of Africa – indicating that the South Atlantic Anomaly could split up into two separate cells.

- Earth’s magnetic field is often visualized as a powerful dipolar bar magnet at the center of the planet, tilted at around 11° to the axis of rotation. However, the growth of the South Atlantic Anomaly indicates that the processes involved in generating the field are far more complex. Simple dipolar models are unable to account for the recent development of the second minimum.

- Scientists from the Swarm Data, Innovation and Science Cluster (DISC) are using data from ESA’s Swarm satellite constellation to better understand this anomaly. Swarm satellites are designed to identify and precisely measure the different magnetic signals that make up Earth’s magnetic field.

- Jürgen Matzka, from the German Research Center for Geosciences, says, “The new, eastern minimum of the South Atlantic Anomaly has appeared over the last decade and in recent years is developing vigorously. We are very lucky to have the Swarm satellites in orbit to investigate the development of the South Atlantic Anomaly. The challenge now is to understand the processes in Earth’s core driving these changes.”

- It has been speculated whether the current weakening of the field is a sign that Earth is heading for an eminent pole reversal – in which the north and south magnetic poles switch places. Such events have occurred many times throughout the planet’s history and even though we are long overdue by the average rate at which these reversals take place (roughly every 250,000 years), the intensity dip in the South Atlantic occurring now is well within what is considered normal levels of fluctuations.

- At surface level, the South Atlantic Anomaly presents no cause for alarm. However, satellites and other spacecraft flying through the area are more likely to experience technical malfunctions as the magnetic field is weaker in this region, so charged particles can penetrate the altitudes of low-Earth orbit satellites.

- The mystery of the origin of the South Atlantic Anomaly has yet to be solved. However, one thing is certain: magnetic field observations from Swarm are providing exciting new insights into the scarcely understood processes of Earth’s interior.


Figure 47: The magnetic field is thought to be largely generated by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up Earth’s the outer core 3000 km under our feet. Acting like the spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, it generates electrical currents and thus the continuously changing electromagnetic field. Other sources of magnetism come from minerals in Earth’s mantle and crust, while the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. ESA’s constellation of three Swarm satellites is designed to identify and measure precisely these different magnetic signals. This will lead to new insight into many natural processes, from those occurring deep inside the planet, to weather in space caused by solar activity (image credit: ESA/ATG Medialab)

• May 14, 2020: For some years now, scientists have been puzzling over why the north magnetic pole has been making a dash towards Siberia. Thanks, in part, to ESA’s Swarm satellite mission, scientists are now more confident in the theory that tussling magnetic blobs deep below Earth’s surface are at the root of this phenomenon. 67)

- Unlike our geographic north pole, which is in a fixed location, magnetic north wanders. This has been known since it was first measured in 1831, and subsequently mapped drifting slowly from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia.


Figure 48: Swirling iron. Changes in the flow of molten material in the planet's interior have altered the strength of the above regions of negative magnetic flux. The image shows the pattern of flow in Earth’s outer core inferred by satellite data, including ESA’s Swarm mission, of the magnetic field. The image was supplied by Dr Nicolas Gillet from the University of Grenoble. The research is partially supported by the French Space Agency CNES (image credit: N. Gillet)

Figure 49: Magnetic North Pole 1840–2019. Unlike our geographic North Pole, which is in a fixed location, magnetic north wanders. This has been known since it was first measured in 1831, and subsequently mapped drifting slowly from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia. One of the practical consequences of this is that the World Magnetic Model has to be updated periodically with the pole’s current location. The model is vital for many navigation systems used by ships, Google maps and smartphones, for example. Between 1990 and 2005 magnetic north accelerated from its historic speed of 0–15 km a year, to its present speed of 50–60 km a year. In late October 2017, it crossed the international date line, passing within 390 km of the geographic pole, and is now heading south. — ESA’s Swarm mission is not only being used to keep track of magnetic north, but scientists are using its data to measure and untangle the different magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere. Our magnetic field exists because of an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core. Like a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, this moving iron creates electrical currents, which in turn generate our continuously changing magnetic field. Tracking changes in the magnetic field can, therefore, tell researchers how the iron in the core moves (video credit: geoGraphics)

- However, since the 1990s, this drift has turned into more of a sprint – going from its historic wandering of 0–15 km a year to its present speed of 50–60 km a year. This shift in pace has meant that the World Magnetic Model has had to be updated more frequently, which is vital for navigation on smart phones, for example.

- Our magnetic field exists because of an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core. Like a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, this moving iron creates electrical currents, which in turn generate our continuously changing magnetic field.

- Numerical models based on measurements from space, including from ESA’s Swarm mission, have allowed scientists to construct global maps of the magnetic field. Tracking changes in the magnetic field can tell researchers how the iron in the core moves.

- During ESA’s Living Planet Symposium last year, scientists from the University of Leeds in the UK reported that these satellite data showed that the position of the north magnetic pole is determined largely by a balance, or tug-of-war, between two large lobes of negative flux at the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle under Canada.


Figure 50: The force that protects our planet. The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

- Following on from this, the research team has recently published their latest findings in Nature Geoscience.

- Phil Livermore, from the University of Leeds, said, “By analyzing magnetic field maps and how they change over time, we can now pinpoint that a change in the circulation pattern of flow underneath Canada has caused a patch of magnetic field at the edge of the core, deep within the Earth, to be stretched out. This has weakened the Canadian patch and resulted in the pole shifting towards Siberia.”

- The big question is whether the pole will ever return to Canada or continue heading south.

- “Models of the magnetic field inside the core suggest that, at least for the next few decades, the pole will continue to drift towards Siberia,” explained Dr Livermore.

- “However, given that the pole’s position is governed by this delicate balance between the Canadian and Siberian patch, it would take only a small adjustment of the field within the core to send the pole back to Canada.”


Figure 51: Tug between magnetic blobs. Unlike our geographic north pole, which is in a fixed location, magnetic north wanders. This has been known since it was first measured in 1831, and subsequently mapped drifting slowly from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia. However, since the 1990s, this drift has turned into more of a sprint – going from its historic wandering of 0–15 km a year to its present speed of 50–60 km a year. Using satellite data, including from ESA's Swarm mission, have concluded that this is down to competition between two magnetic blobs on the edge of the Earth's outer core. Changes in the flow of molten material in the planet's interior have altered the strength of the above regions of negative magnetic flux. The image shows how the strength of the magnetic patch over Canada has weakened and how the position of the north magnetic pole has changed between 1999 and 2019 (image credit: P. Livermore)

• November 27, 2019: Strange ribbons of purple light that appeared in the sky – known as Steve – became the subject of debate in 2017, as their origins were unbeknown to scientists. Now, photographs of this remarkable phenomena have been studied to understand their exact position in the night sky. 68)

- Steve was first spotted by citizen scientists who posted photos of the unusual purple streaks of light in the Aurora Chasers Facebook group. Sometimes Steve was seen accompanied by smudges of green lines – nicknamed ‘picket fences’ owing to their appearance.

- Unsure of what it was and how to refer to it, the name ‘Steve’ was chosen from a scene from the animated movie Over the Hedge, where characters choose a name for something unknown to them.

- Scientists were able to compare ground sightings with data from ESA’s Swarm mission, which showed that Steve actually comprises a fast-moving stream of extremely hot atomic particles.

- Since then, scientists have been trying to better understand the science behind the phenomenon.


Figure 52: Steve – a strange shimmering ribbon of light in the night sky – became the subject of debate in 2017. Photographs of this remarkable phenomena have been studied to understand their position in the night sky. Sometimes Steve can be seen accompanied by smudges of green lines – nicknamed ‘picket fences’ owing to their appearance (photo credit: Robert Downie)

- A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, describes how a group of scientists approached the Alberta Aurora Chasers to provide photos of Steve from two different locations and angles. Stars were identified in the background of these photographs using the SkySafari application. The stars were then used to precisely orient the photographs. This facilitated the triangulation of the altitude ranges of the two phenomena. 69)

- They estimate that the optical emissions of Steve range from 130 to 270 km in altitude, while the green picket fence ranges from 95 to 150 km in altitude. As well as this, they found that Steve and the picket fence align with each other along very similar magnetic field lines.

- Although the picket fence is triggered by raining electrons, there is no evidence that Steve is as well. The fact that the two phenomena are exactly aligned is another clue in understanding the origin and dynamics of Steve.

- William Archer, from the University of Calgary says, “It is remarkable to see that originally citizen scientists of the Alberta Aurora Chasers triggered the curiosity of scientists to study Steve. I’m excited they were able to extend our understanding of Steve using photographs taken by citizen scientists.”

- He continues, “The Canadian government has also shown interest in Steve and has recently minted a coin featuring Steve and the picket fence.”

What’s the difference between Steve and the aurora?

- Typical aurora is caused by energetic electrons traveling down Earth’s magnetic field. When those electrons collide with the atmosphere roughly 100 km above Earth’s surface, they excite atoms which then emit red, green, and violet light. In contrast, Steve does not appear to be caused by energetic electrons, and is white in color.

Figure 53: The creation of an aurora and Steve starts with the Sun sending a surge of charged particles towards Earth. This surge applies pressure on Earth’s magnetic field, which sends the Sun's charged particles to the far side of Earth, where it is night-time. On this far, night side of Earth, Earth's magnet field forms a distinctive tail. When the tail stretches and elongates, it forces oppositely directed magnetic fields close together that join in an explosive process called magnetic reconnection. Like a stretched rubber band suddenly breaking, these magnetic field lines then snap back towards Earth, carrying charged particles along for the ride. These charged particles slam into the upper atmosphere, causing it to glow and generating the light we see as the aurora — and now possibly Steve (image credit: NASA Goddard's Conceptual Image Lab/K. Kim)

- According to Eric Donovan's presentation of the Swarm satellite data in 2017, Steve was caused by a 25 km wide ribbon of hot gasses at an altitude of 300 km with a temperature of 3000 °C. The phenomena flowed at a speed of 6 km/s and occurred in sub-auroral regions. In a follow-up study, no evidence was found that Steve is caused in the same way as auroras.

- ESA’s Roger Haagmans says, “Although this is a conceptually straightforward result, it contributes significantly to our understanding of Steve. The combination of Swarm data along with photographic observations may help enable us to unravel the mystery that is Steve.”

Figure 54: All-sky imagers and satellites. Today’s wealth of all-sky imagers in North America and satellites to observe the aurora borealis is a far cry from 20 years ago (video credit: University of Calgary)

• May 01, 2019: Our protective magnetic field is always restless, but every now and then something weird happens – it jerks. Although scientists have known about these rapid shifts for some 40 years, the reason why they occur has remained a frustrating mystery, until now. 70)

- Since geomagnetic jerks were discovered in 1978 scientists have been trying to work out why the magnetic field suddenly and unexpectedly accelerates.

- Looking back at measurement records from the worldwide network of ground-based magnetic observatories, they found that these jerks, which appear as sharp V-shaped features in graphs of magnetic-field changes, date back as far as 1901, and that the phenomenon occurs about every three to 12 years. Also, they are not consistent across the globe. In 1949, for example, a jerk was measured in North America, but was not detected in Europe.

- Since they occur relatively randomly and the mechanism that drives them has been poorly understood, these jerks have frustrated attempts to forecast changes in the magnetic field, even for a few years ahead.

- Forecasts are important because the magnetic field protects us from solar storms, which have the potential to disrupt power supplies, communication links and navigation systems, for example.


Figure 55: Simulation of the magnetic field in Earth’s core. Earth’s core as modelled in the numerical geodynamo simulation as part of research into geomagnetic jerks and rapid hydromagnetic waves published as the cover story in Nature Geosciences, May 2018. The magnetic field lines (orange) are stretched, twisted and folded by the turbulent convection producing shear of electrically conducting fluid (red and blue). Hydromagnetic waves are triggered when the shear is misaligned with field lines, and propagate along these lines to the surface of the core where they can focus and cause geomagnetic jerks (image credit: Julien Aubert, IPGP/CNRS/CNRS Photothèque)


Figure 56: Tracking geomagnetic jerks. The rate of change in magnetic vertical component at Honolulu observatory in Hawaii (blue) and when ESA’s Swarm mission orbits above (red). Sudden changes in the slope indicate geomagnetic jerks (image credit: DTU)

- Bearing in mind that ground-based magnetic observatories are built on land, information about these jerks has been incomplete as the ocean, of course, covers 70% of Earth’s surface. But thanks to ESA’s trio of Swarm satellites, which measure variations in Earth’s magnetic field from space, scientists can now study the global structure of geomagnetic jerks.

- In a paper published recently in Nature Geoscience scientists from the Paris Institute of Earth Physics and the Technical University of Denmark describe how they created a computer model for geomagnetic jerks and they have offered an explanation as to why they happen. 71)

- Our magnetic field is generated mainly by the churning of fluid within Earth’s core. Researchers know of two types of movement that cause different variations in the magnetic field: those resulting from slow convection movement, which can be measured on the scale of a century, and those resulting from rapid hydromagnetic waves, which can be detected over a few years.

- They suspected that the latter type play a role in the jerks, but the interaction of these fast waves with slow convection, along with their mechanism of propagation and amplification, had yet to be revealed.


Figure 57: The force that protects our planet. The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

- Now, the researchers have been able to document the series of events that lead to jerks which, in the simulation, arise from hydromagnetic waves emitted within the core. As molten matter rises up to reach the outer surface of the Earth’s core, it produces powerful waves along the magnetic field lines near the core. The team explained that this results in sharp changes in the flow of liquid beneath the magnetic field.

- The jerks originate in rising blobs of metal that form in the planet’s core 25 years before the corresponding jerk takes place. These current findings are part of a longer-term project in which scientists hope to predict the evolution of the geomagnetic field over the coming decades.

- Chris Finlay, from DTU Space, said, “Swarm has made a real contribution to our research, allowing us to make detailed comparisons, in both space and time, with physical theories on the origin of these magnetic jerks. While our findings make fascinating science, there are some real-world benefits of understanding how our magnetic field changes. Many modern electronic devices such as smart phones, rely on our knowledge of the magnetic field for orientation information. Being able to better forecast field changes will help with such systems.”

• April 25, 2019: The recently-discovered atmospheric glow is both like typical auroras and distinct from them, new research finds. The celestial phenomenon known as STEVE is likely caused by a combination of heating of charged particles in the atmosphere and energetic electrons like those that power the aurora, according to new research. In a new study, scientists found STEVE’s source region in space and identified two mechanisms that cause it. 72)


Figure 58: Amateur astronomer’s photograph used in the new research. The photograph was taken on 8 May 2016 in Keller, Washington The major structures are two bands of upper atmospheric emissions 160 km (100 miles) above the ground, a mauve arc and green picket fence. The black objects at the bottom are trees. The background star constellations include Gemini and Ursa Major (image credit: Rocky Raybell)

- Last year, the obscure atmospheric lights became an internet sensation. Typical auroras, the northern and southern lights, are usually seen as swirling green ribbons spreading across the sky. But STEVE is a thin ribbon of pinkish-red or mauve-colored light stretching from east to west, farther south than where auroras usually appear. Even more strange, STEVE is sometimes joined by green vertical columns of light nicknamed the “picket fence.”

- Auroras are produced by glowing oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere, excited by charged particles streaming in from the near-Earth magnetic environment called the magnetosphere. Scientists didn’t know if STEVE was a kind of aurora, but a 2018 study found its glow is not due to charged particles raining down into Earth’s upper atmosphere.

- The authors of the 2018 study dubbed STEVE a kind of “sky-glow” that is distinct from the aurora, but were unsure exactly what was causing it. Complicating the matter was the fact that STEVE can appear during solar-induced magnetic storms around Earth that power the brightest auroral lights.

- Authors of a new study published in AGU’s journal Geophysical Research Letters analyzed satellite data and ground images of STEVE events and conclude that the reddish arc and green picket fence are two distinct phenomena arising from different processes. The picket fence is caused by a mechanism similar to typical auroras, but STEVE’s mauve streaks are caused by heating of charged particles higher up in the atmosphere, similar to what causes light bulbs to glow.

- “Aurora is defined by particle precipitation, electrons and protons actually falling into our atmosphere, whereas the STEVE atmospheric glow comes from heating without particle precipitation,” said Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a space physicist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the new study. “The precipitating electrons that cause the green picket fence are thus aurora, though this occurs outside the auroral zone, so it’s indeed unique.”

- Images of STEVE are beautiful in themselves, but they also provide a visible way to study the invisible, complex charged particle flows in Earth’s magnetosphere, according to the study’s authors. The new results help scientists better understand how particle flows develop in the ionosphere, which is important goal because such disturbances can interfere with radio communications and affect GPS signals.

Where does STEVE come from?

- In the new study, researchers wanted to find out what powers STEVE and if it occurs in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres at the same time. They analyzed data from several satellites passing overhead during STEVE events in April 2008 and May 2016 to measure the electric and magnetic fields in Earth’s magnetosphere at the time.

- The researchers then coupled the satellite data with photos of STEVE taken by amateur auroral photographers to figure out what causes the unusual glow. They found that during STEVE, a flowing “river” of charged particles in Earth’s ionosphere collide, creating friction that heats the particles and causes them to emit mauve light. Incandescent light bulbs work in much the same way, where electricity heats a filament of tungsten until it’s hot enough to glow.


Figure 59: Artist’s rendition of the magnetosphere during the STEVE occurrence, depicting the plasma region which falls into the auroral zone (green), the plasmasphere (blue) and the boundary between them called the plasmapause (red). The THEMIS and SWARM satellites (left and top) observed waves (red squiggles) that power the STEVE atmospheric glow and picket fence (inset), while the DMSP satellite (bottom) detected electron precipitation and a conjugate glowing arc in the southern hemisphere (image credit: Emmanuel Masongsong, UCLA, and Yukitoshi Nishimura, BU/UCLA)

- Interestingly, the study found the picket fence is powered by energetic electrons streaming from space thousands of kilometers above Earth. While similar to the process that creates typical auroras, these electrons impact the atmosphere far south of usual auroral latitudes. The satellite data showed high-frequency waves moving from Earth’s magnetosphere to its ionosphere can energize electrons and knock them out of the magnetosphere to create the striped picket fence display.

- The researchers also found the picket fence occurs in both hemispheres at the same time, supporting the conclusion that its source is high enough above Earth to feed energy to both hemispheres simultaneously.

- Public involvement has been crucial for STEVE research by providing ground-based images and precise time and location data, according to Toshi Nishimura, a space physicist at Boston University and lead author of the new study.

- “As commercial cameras become more sensitive and increased excitement about the aurora spreads via social media, citizen scientists can act as a ‘mobile sensor network,’ and we are grateful to them for giving us data to analyze,” Nishimura said.

• February 8, 2019: Since it was first measured in 1831, we have known that the magnetic north is constantly on the move. However, its tendency to slowly roam has stepped up a pace recently – so much so that the World Magnetic Model has had to be updated urgently with the pole’s new location, vital for navigation on smartphones, for example. ESA’s magnetic field Swarm mission has been key for this update. 73)

- The World Magnetic Model, the basis for many navigation systems used by ships, Google maps and smartphones, relies on the accurate knowledge of Earth’s magnetic field. Since magnetic north never stands still, the model has to be revised periodically – but a surge in pace has meant that an update was needed ahead of schedule.

- Driven largely by the churning of fluid in Earth’s core, which generates the magnetic field, the magnetic north pole has always drifted, and geological evidence shows that every few hundred thousand years or so it even flips, so that north becomes south.

- Around 50 years ago, the pole was ambling along at around 15 km a year, but now it is sprinting ahead at around 55 km a year. In 2017, it crossed the international date line, leaving the Canadian Arctic and heading towards Siberia.

- The World Magnetic Model is used to keep track of changes in the magnetic field and is updated every five years by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Geological Survey.


Figure 60: Magnetic north on the move. Driven largely by the churning of fluid in Earth’s core, which generates the magnetic field, the magnetic north pole has always drifted. Around 50 years ago, the pole was ambling along at around 15 km a year, but now it is charging ahead at around 55 km a year, leaving the Canadian Arctic heading towards Siberia (image credit: DTU Space)

- The next update was due at the end of this year. However, thanks in part to ESA’s Swarm mission, researchers found that the pole is drifting in a way that wasn’t expected. This meant that model was simply too inaccurate for it to remain until the next planned revision. So, an ‘out-of-cycle’ update has just been issued.

- Since the mission was launched in 2013, ESA’s Swarm constellation has been tracking variations in Earth’s magnetic field, and also the position of the magnetic north pole.

- While measurements from Swarm are used to advance our scientific understanding of Earth’s magnetic field, they also have clear practical uses as demonstrated by their contribution to this urgent update of the World Magnetic Model, which is used every day by billions of people in their smartphones, even if they are unaware of it.

- Nils Olsen from DTU Space said, “Your smartphone contains a magnetometer that measures Earth’s magnetic field. “In order to make sense of this information, Android and iOS operating systems use the magnetic model to correct the measurements to true geographic north. So, in this model update, the latest Swarm data have been used to provide up-to-date information for users of numerous navigation systems.”

• November 7, 2018: Researchers have tested a clever new method of monitoring the impact of solar storms on Earth’s magnetic field, based on harnessing the compass-like magnetometers that space missions used to check their orientation. 74)

- Some satellites carry extremely sensitive magnetometers for scientific studies; these instruments are placed on booms, away from stray magnetic field sources inside the parent satellite.

- But many more satellites host less sensitive magnetometers, called ‘platform magnetometers’ that work like compasses, measuring Earth’s magnetic field to check satellites are pointed in the correct position.


Figure 61: Our star dominates the environment within our Solar System. Unpredictable and temperamental, the Sun has made life on the inner planets impossible, due to the intense radiation combined with colossal amounts of energetic material it blasts in every direction, creating the ever-changing conditions in space known as ‘space weather’ (image credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

- Might these platform magnetometers also be used to monitor space weather? An ESA-led research team consisting of Delft University of Technology and the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences mounted an investigation.

- ESA space environment researcher Fabrice Cipriani explains: “Quantifying the effects that solar storms have on Earth is extremely important to monitor and assess the impacts on sensitive infrastructure and so we want to exploit as many sources of data as possible that can provide meaningful information, especially when there are no major development costs involved.”

- Researchers looked at data from ESA’s magnetic-field-mapping Swarm, gravity-mapping GOCE and technology-testing LISA Pathfinder missions to probe whether platform magnetometer data could also be used for monitoring changing space weather.


Figure 62: Illustration of the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft (image credit: ESA)

- The team compared the data from Swarm’s scientific magnetometer with its platform magnetometer to determine the accuracy of the latter. They then applied this knowledge to an analysis of GOCE’s magnetometer. These were both low-Earth orbiting missions, providing a lot of information about Earth’s response to space weather. LISA Pathfinder, conversely, operated from an Earth-Sun Lagrange Point, 1.5 million km away.

- Eelco Doornbos, from TU Delft explains: “LISA Pathfinder is positioned between Earth and the Sun, outside Earth’s magnetosphere. This gives it a great view of the solar wind.”

- LISA Pathfinder’s platform magnetometer data was compared with that of US space weather observatories WIND, ACE and DSCOVR.

- “We investigated data from LISA Pathfinder, which can observe the solar wind, and from Swarm and GOCE, observing magnetic field currents closer to Earth,” adds Dr. Doornbos. “In both cases the platform magnetometer data was good enough to receive a good signal, even when the magnetometer is not very precise and is close to other instruments.”

- The team found that platform magnetometers can indeed provide excellent insights into space weather. Their usage could be fostered in future through developing new data processing techniques, relatively low cost compared to developing dedicated instruments and missions.

- Traditionally platform magnetometer data are only sent to Earth so that engineers can check a satellite is working properly. The next step is to make this data accessible to more people.


Figure 63: Platform Magnetometer: Hi-Rel Magnetometer FGM-A-75 from ZARM is an instrument for measuring three-dimensional magnetic fields. It is based on the fluxgate principle, using three independent ring-core sensor heads for each orthogonal axis. Mass total: <0.3 kg, size: 100 x 82 x 34 mm3 (image credit: ZARM Technik AG)

- Fabrice adds: “We want to encourage data users to be involved at an early design phase when developing new spacecraft, to help figure out how to enable easier access to the this data. - Space weather is such a complicated system that changes so rapidly that the more observations you have, the better,” concludes Dr. Doornbos. “That’s why it’s great to get as many satellites as possible looking into it.”