The European Space Agency (ESA) is delicately coaxing its trio of Swarm satellites into their respective orbits so they can start delivering the best-ever survey of Earth's magnetic field.
Since the Swarm constellation was launched last November, engineers have been busy putting the satellites through their paces to make sure the craft and instruments are working correctly. This commissioning phase is an essential part of the mission before it starts providing data to further our understanding of Earth's complex and constantly changing magnetic field.
Essential to life, the magnetic field protects us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. Since the intensity of solar activity is currently lower than anticipated, the original plan of where to place the satellites at the beginning of science operations has been reviewed recently by the scientific community and ESA experts.
Launched together, the three identical Swarm satellites were released into adjacent orbits at an altitude of 490 km. The satellites may be identical, but their orbits are different to optimize sampling in space and time. The data acquired from different locations can be used to distinguish between the changes in the magnetic field caused by the sun's activity and those signals that originate from inside Earth.
Images courtesy of ESA/ATG medialab.