Feeds

ROBOT SWARM positions itself over EARTH ... to probe our magnetic field

For the poles, they are a-changin'

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The European Space Agency has successfully deployed its trio of mapping satellites, dubbed Swarm, and is ready to start some serious scanning of the Earth's changing magnetic fields.

The Swarm payload was launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in Northern Russia on Friday evening and has now split into its three constituent satellites. Two will orbit the Earth in tandem on a polar path at an altitude of 450km, while the third will fly above them at 530km once the the launch and early orbit phase (LEOP) is complete.

"We've had a trouble-free LEOP and the satellites are performing beyond expectation," said flight operations director Pier Paolo Emanuelli in a statement. "We're looking forward to an excellent mission."

The ESA team is now focused on starting up the Swarm's main telemetry systems in preparation for magnetic mapping operations. The mission is going to help scientists understand the strange phenomenon of magnetic-pole shifts that the Earth is currently undergoing.

While early explorers thought the magnetic poles on our planet were fixed, geological evidence shows that they change roughly every 250,000 years – but as far as geoscientists can tell, they haven't shifted significantly in over double that time period since their last big switchover.

But NASA reports that the Earth's magnetic North Pole has been moving further north at a rate of 40 miles per year, four times the speed it displayed a century ago. At the same time, the magnetic field is weakening slightly.

The Earth's magnetic field is a key element in protecting the fragile life forms on the surface from dangerous solar radiation. While you would expect this protection to lessen somewhat during a shift in poles, it's nothing too much to worry about, Todd Hoeksema, a solar physicist at Stanford's Wilcox Solar Observatory told The Reg.

"The same systems that are vulnerable now, such as power systems, would face increased risks, but your radio and telephone are still going to work. And this isn't something that happens overnight – we'd have a warning," he said.

Hoeksema is something of an expert in the field and has been mapping the Sun's magnetic pole shift, which has been ongoing for the last year. But he told us that the Earth's poles are expected to shift from a binary pole system to one with four poles. This will pose something of a problem for compass makers, but life as we know it will still carry on just fine, he said.

ESA's Swarm mission will now spend the next four years mapping our magnetosphere, how it reacts with solar winds, and how the rate of change is proceeding. A full magnetic shift should take a thousand years or so, so no need to panic yet. ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.