As geologists know, the Earth’s north and south poles reverse polarity roughly every few hundred thousand years. Thankfully, our planet’s magnetic field protects us from deadly solar radiation and cosmic rays and allows life to thrive, no matter which polarity is in effect this year. However, recently Earth’s magnetic field has been weakening and scientists are concerned that it could collapse with dangerous and unpredictable results for life on Earth.
Honeywell Aerospace has taken a significant role in a project known as “Swarm” to help scientists to predict the future evolution of Earth’s magnetic field.
We are supplying the Canadian Electric Field Instrument (CEFI) to the three existing Swarm satellites, developing the magnetometer on the Enhanced Polar Outflow Probe, better known simply as “e POP,” and helping the University of Calgary build the e-POP digital Radio Receiver Instrument (RRI).
The CEFI consists of four sensors, a charged faceplate and all the associated command, telemetry and readout electronics.
These include one pair of Langmuir probes developed by IRFU (Swedish Institute of Space Physics) that measure electron density, electron temperature and the spacecraft potential and one pair of thermal ion imagers (developed by COM DEV, based on a University of Calgary design) that measure ionospheric winds and ion temperatures.
The e-POP RRI is a four-channel digital VLF-HF receiver that covers a wide range of the electric fields of waves from 10 Hz to 18 MHz. It interfaces to the spacecraft for command, control and power supply.
About the Swarm mission
The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the “Swarm” mission in 2013—basically, a mini-satellite constellation mission to study the Earth's magnetic field with unprecedented accuracy to help scientists to predict the future evolution of Earth’s magnetic field.
“The Earth’s magnetic field strength has reduced by approximately 15 percent over the past 150 years and the drift in the magnetic north pole was up to 40 kilometers per year in 2000. In fact, current estimates are as high as 65 kilometers per year,” said Mike Smith, Program Manager for Honeywell Aerospace. “We’re no longer just dealing in far-distant geologic epochs and ages.”
Originally consisting of three satellites flying in formation, ESA and Canada have made a deal that turns Swarm into a four-satellite mission to shed even more light on space weather and features such as the aurora borealis.
Thanks to this international cooperation and formalized through ESA’s “Third Party Mission” program, e-POP has effectively become a fourth element of the Swarm mission. Known as Echo, it joins Swarm’s Alpha, Bravo and Charlie satellites.
Flying in formation, it is hoped that these four sophisticated satellites will unravel one of the most mysterious aspects of our planet: the magnetic field. COM DEV International—which was acquired by Honeywell Aerospace in 2016—designed and built the CEFI which will be positioned at the front of each satellite and characterize the Earth’s electric fields. CEFI is the first 3D ionospheric imager in orbit.
Canada’s Cassiope satellite carries e-POP, which consists of eight instruments to provide information on Earth’s ionosphere, thermosphere and magnetosphere for a better understanding of space weather.
Since its launch, the three identical Swarm satellites have been returning a wealth of information about how our magnetic field is generated and how the ionized part of the upper atmosphere—the ionosphere—behaves.
Now with Echo, the four Honeywell-equipped satellites will be monitoring the changes that occur in Earth’s magnetic field, providing advanced warning of potential exposure to harmful radiation from space.
“The last pole reversal was 780,000 years ago and, as they happen every 200,000 to 300,000 years, we’re long overdue,” Smith said.
*RRI preamplifier module