NASA is actively monitoring a strange anomaly in Earth’s magnetic field: a giant region of lower magnetic intensity in the skies above the planet, stretching out between South America and southwest Africa.
This vast, developing phenomenon, called the South Atlantic Anomaly, has intrigued and concerned scientists for years, and perhaps none more so than NASA researchers. The space agency’s satellites and spacecraft are particularly vulnerable to the weakened magnetic field strength within the anomaly, and the resulting exposure to charged particles from the Sun.
The South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) – likened by NASA to a ‘dent’ in Earth’s magnetic field, or a kind of ‘pothole in space’ – generally doesn’t affect life on Earth, but the same can’t be said for orbital spacecraft (including the International Space Station), which pass directly through the anomaly as they loop around the planet at low-Earth orbit altitudes.
During these encounters, the reduced magnetic field strength inside the anomaly means technological systems onboard satellites can short-circuit and malfunction if they become struck by high-energy protons emanating from the Sun.