As part of ESA's Swarm mission, scientists have been mapping the planet's magnetic field with the help three satellites. Each satellite is equipped with several Earth-studying tools -- including magnetometers, which measure the magnetic field's strength and direction.
"I started my career in magnetometry and the accuracy we had then in the laboratories was less than what we can fly in space now," Volker Liebig, the director of Earth observation at ESA, recently told BBC News. "So what we have on Swarm is fantastic, but we need long time series to understand fully the Earth's magnetic field, and we will get that from this mission."
Results from the Swarm mission suggest that not only is magnetic north on the move, but the entire magnet field is weakening, leaving Earth potentially exposed to additional cosmic radiation. This, however, is considered normal, with the magnet cloak likely to regain its strength in the near future.
Analysis of ancient rocks buried deep in the Earth lead scientists to believe Earth's magnetic north and south poles switch every few million years. The latest from Swam suggests the poles may once again be preparing to trade sides; though the flip-flop itself takes several thousand years.
A study published in 2011 surmised that the shifting magnetic poles are affected by the movement of Earth's tectonic plates.
Currently, Swarm satellites have only honed in on the general magnetic field generated by Earth's molten core. But scientists expect to study more delicate magnetic fields in the future, such as the field generated by the movement of the world's oceans.
"These initial results demonstrate the excellent performance of Swarm," said Rune Floberghagen, ESA's Swarm Mission Manager. "With unprecedented resolution, the data also exhibit Swarm's capability to map fine-scale features of the magnetic field."
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