Strange region of space can damage orbiting satellites

Shane McGlaun - Feb 14, 2021, 10:25am CST
Strange region of space can damage orbiting satellites

A strange region above the earth known as the “Bermuda Triangle of space” has the potential to severely damage satellites and could harm the ISS. In this zone, the Earth’s magnetic field has a weak spot approximately the size of the continental United States. This weak spot hovers above South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean.

While the weak spot in the Earth’s magnetic field poses no risk of harm to life on earth, objects in orbit such as satellites and the space station aren’t so lucky. As satellites or the ISS orbit through the area, they are bombarded with radiation that’s more intense than at any other point in their orbits. The official name for the region is the South Atlantic Anomaly.

Since the magnetic field is weaker in this area, solar cosmic rays aren’t blocked to the same extent as they are elsewhere above our planet. This weakness allows solar rays to penetrate the atmosphere to as close as 124 miles above the earth’s surface. Researcher John Tarduno, a professor of geophysics from the University of Rochester, said that he’s not fond of the nickname “Bermuda Triangle space.” However, he does say that in the region, the lower geomagnetic field intensity does result in greater vulnerability to satellites to the point where they could be damaged when transversing the area.

Tarduno says that typically the Earth’s magnetic field protects satellites at an altitude of between 620 and 37,000 miles above the planet’s surface. In the area of the South Atlantic Anomaly, the radiation can penetrate the atmosphere enough that satellites orbiting the area could be bombarded by protons exceeding the energy of 10 million electron volts.

The area does impact the ISS as well. In the early days of the space station, the anomaly would crash computers forcing systems to be powered down before the station went through the area. Even stranger is that astronauts were sometimes affected when the space station traversed the area, with some reporting seeing white flashing lights before their eyes. Steps were taken to protect astronauts and systems from any potential harm. The Hubble Space Telescope is also unable to collect data during the ten times per day it passes through the zone.

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