Swarm: ESA’s Magnetic Field Mission

Launched in November 2013, three Swarm satellites will provide new insights into many natural processes related to Earth’s magnetic field.

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Swarm is ESA’s first constellation of Earth observation satellites designed to measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere, providing data that will allow scientists to study the complexities of our protective magnetic field. Image Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab.

Following eight years of development, scientific research, verification and characterization  tests, on Nov. 22, 2013, three new Earth Observation satellites were launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore the Earth’s magnetic field in unprecedented detail. This is the Swarm mission, originally proposed by a consortium led by Eigil Friis-Christensen (DTU Space, Denmark), Hermann Lühr (GFZ Potsdam, Germany), and Gauthier Hulot (IPGP, France).

Earth’s magnetic field is something we do not see nor feel. Apart from the fascinating images of the aurora lights, the popular magnetic bracelets of dubious effectiveness, the entertaining fridge magnets and the occasional use of our smartphone compass, we do not seem to often interact with the magnetic field in our daily life.  It is indeed rare to think about the magnetic field lines and the constant changing Earth’s magnetic flux during our busy days. Despite this, the Earth’s magnetic field is one of the most fascinating elements of our planet. It acts as a protective shield from charged particles from the sun that stream toward Earth. It is essential for life itself and it has a strong influence on the evolution of the climate.

In short-term time scales, such sun-Earth interaction also can generate extreme global phenomena such as magnetic storms. One example is the notorious “Halloween Storm” that occurred on Oct. 29,  2003.  The magnetic direction at the poles rapidly changed more than 20 degrees and auroras were seen as low as 30 degrees of latitudes. The storm disrupted technological systems around the world. For example, over-the-horizon radio communication was disturbed and  airline polar routes were canceled. Civilian and military satellites were partially damaged.  The geomagnetic orientation used for directional drilling for oil and gas was halted. Global Positioning System (GPS) accuracy was degraded, affecting commercial and military aircraft navigation. Astronauts took precautionary actions to avoid excessive levels of radiation. And geomagnetic-induced currents in the Earth’s crust caused stress in the electric-power grids and blackouts from South Africa to Japan.

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The three satellites that make up ESA’s Swarm magnetic field mission at the IABG centre in Ottobrunn in Germany. Image Credit: ESA/P. Sebirot, 2012.

This confirms how the geomagnetic field is of uttermost importance for our Earth system and environment both in long and short time scales. As such, it makes this three-spacecraft mission of great interest for science and the public at large.

Developed on behalf of ESA by an industrial consortium led by European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), Astrium GmbH (recently changed to Airbus Defence and Space), the three satellites,  each 9.26 meters long (with the boom fully deployed) and weighting 473 kilograms at launch (including 106 kilograms of Freon propellant), are all carrying the same payload and will together provide new insights into many natural processes related to Earth’s magnetic field: from those occurring deep inside the planet to the near-Earth electromagnetic environment and the influences of the solar wind.

The payload and the mission orbits

Each of the three Swarm satellites will make high-precision and high-resolution measurements of the strength, direction and variation of the magnetic field, complemented by precise navigation, accelerometer, plasma and electric field measurements.

The two main instruments of Swarm are the Absolute Scalar Magnetometer (ASM) and the Vector Field Magnetometer (VFM). They will provide absolute and vector measurements of the magnetic field. Magnetic sensors measure a combination of the core field tangled with others from magnetized rocks in the crust, electrical currents flowing in the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans, and currents induced by external fields inside Earth’s mantle.

The challenge is to separate the individual magnetic field sources, each with their own characteristics in strength, space and time. To achieve this, the satellites will be placed into specific orbits.

Two satellites will fly side-by-side (separation in longitude at the equator equivalent to about 150 kilometers) in near polar orbits at an altitude of 460 kilometers at the beginning of life, with an inclination of 87.35 degrees. The third satellite will be in higher polar orbit at an altitude of 530 kilometers at the beginning of life, with an 87.95-degree inclination. They are not sun-synchronous orbits and as such, they allow the satellites to move rapidly through local time. All local times will be covered over a period that doesn’t coincide with any seasonal variations, making it possible to study seasonal processes. And the almost circular and near-polar orbit enables a homogeneous and almost complete global coverage of the Earth.

The two lower pairs will be affected equally by the magnetosphere and ionosphere, and hence the differences detected in their measurements can be assumed to originate from very local effects of the Earth’s crust, mantle and core. Moreover, over the course of the mission, the orbit of the higher satellite will drift and after four years it will cross the path of the two lower satellites at an angle of 90 degrees. Collecting data that is influenced by different contributions of the magnetic field, the higher satellite will enable the scientist to discriminate large-scale external sources of magnetic influence from Earth “fixed” ones.

The mission is intended to last at least four years, and the combination of results from Swarm with previous missions and a possible extension beyond four years will enable a good separation between the secular variation of the core field and the influence on these time scales of the solar cycles.

The payload on each satellite also includes GPS receivers, an accelerometer and an electric field instrument (EFI) that will deliver supplementary information to study the interaction of Earth’s magnetic field with the solar wind.

In detail

Absolute Scalar Magnetometer (ASM)

This novel instrument will measure the magnetic field to an accuracy greater than any other magnetometer. The ASM is an ‘optically pumped metastable helium-4 magnetometer,’ developed and manufactured by Laboratoire d’électronique des technologies de l’information (CEA-LETI) in Grenoble (France) under contract with Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) Toulouse. It provides scalar measurements of the magnetic field for the calibration of the vector field magnetometer using a technique based on enhancing the magnetic resonance signal of helium atoms with a tuneable laser at 1083 nanometers.

Vector Field Magnetometer (VFM)

This core instrument will make high-precision measurements of Earth’s magnetic field vector components. It was developed and manufactured at the Technical University of Denmark based on heritage from many previous satellite missions as well as sounding rockets and stratospheric balloons.

Startracker assembly

This unit provides high-precision attitude data, primarily needed to determine the orientation of the magnetic field vector measured by the Vector Field Magnetometer. The attitude information also is used by the satellite’s attitude and orbital control system to establish a fine-pointing mode during normal operations and the orientation of other instruments. This latest generation of startracker was developed and manufactured at the Technical University of Denmark, based on heritage from many previous satellite missions.


These units will measure the satellites’ non-gravitational accelerations in their respective orbits, which in turn will provide information about air drag and solar wind forces. Air density models will be derived from these products and will be used together with magnetic data to obtain new insights on the geomagnetic forcing of the upper atmosphere. The instrument was designed and manufactured by VZLU (Czech Republic) supported by Czech subcontractors – the first time that ESA has contracted an instrument of this complexity to Czech industry.

Electrical Field Instrument (EFI)

To characterize the electric field around Earth, this instrument will measure plasma density, drift and acceleration at high resolution. It is the first ever three-dimensional ionospheric imager in orbit, with an ingenious thermal ion imager design from the University of Calgary (Canada) and a unique concept for the sensors of the Langmuir probe from IRFU, Uppsala (Sweden). The instrument was developed by ComDev (Canada) with scientific support of the University of Calgary for the thermal ion imager sensors. The power supplies were developed by CAEN SpA (Italy). A Langmuir probe assembly is included with the instrument to provide measurement of electron density, electron temperature and spacecraft potential.

GPS and laser retroreflector

The precise orbit determination of the Swarm satellites will rely on the data of the GPS receiver. Each satellite is equipped with a laser retroreflector to validate the GPS system. Swarm is supported by the International Laser Ranging Service that provides satellite laser-ranging observation data from a network of stations around the world. The GPS receiver (RUAG, Austria) is used firstly as the orbit sensor to provide a real-time navigation solution (position, velocity and time) to the attitude and orbit control system; and secondly as a sensor, generating raw measurements data (code and carrier phases) as required for precise orbit determination and total electron content measurements. The laser retroreflector for Swarm was procured as a rebuild of existing ones from the GeoForschungs Zentrum Potsdam, that have been used on previous satellite missions such as CHAMP, GRACE and TerraSAR-X.

Mission Facts and Data Access

Updated information about the mission can be found on the ESA’s Swarm page. Data will also be available at the same site following the Commissioning Phase and the initial Product Validation activities.

Giuseppe Ottavianelli works at the European Space Agency (ESAESRIN) in the Sensor Performance Products and Algorithms Section in the Ground Segment and Mission Operations Department of the Directorate of Earth Observation Programmes. Ottavianelli works on the Swarm mission data quality monitoring and on the product quality control of CopernicusGMES multi-mission applications. See his previous article on Earthzine, “Data quality for GEOSS: condicio sine qua non.”