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Shield SA’s geomagnetism

The earth is continuously battered by charged particles from the sun and other sources from outer space, but the Earth’s magnetic field protects its life forms from most of these. More accurately known as the geomagnetic field, it is a dynamic phenomenon that is constantly changing and shifting.

The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) is the current torchbearer for a long line of researchers who have monitored this ever-changing geomagnetic field. At the centre of South Africa’s contribution is the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HER).

Sansa researcher Dr Pieter Kotzé recently penned an article on the history of geomagnetism in South Africa centered on the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory. In the article, also published in the History of Geo- and Space Sciences journal, Kotzé relays the important historical role that Sansa’s geomagnetic capacity played and still plays in South Africa and the rest of the world.

He explains how HER participates in international projects involving satellite missions, and how it forms part of a network of geomagnetic survey stations spread across southern Africa. “These stations help us study patterns of magnetic variation and the influence of the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly.”

The South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly is a region where the Earth’s magnetic field is 25% weaker when compared to other regions of similar latitude around the globe, which effectively creates a hole in the Earth’s shield against space weather.

The Hermanus site was chosen after the original site in Cape Town was inundated with development, including electrified railways that cause interference to sensitive magnetic instruments. Hermanus today is still remote and situated away from such interference, so much so that the small town possesses a train station that has never seen a train. It is for this reason that the Observatory needs to continue being protected, by law, from any development that may interfere with observations.

The Observatory at Sansa’s Hermanus facility has a magnetically clean environment, which makes it one of the only sites in Africa to take baseline measurements for geomagnetic surveys and calibrate magnetic equipment for aircraft and navy vessels – a valued service to the defence force and private aviation companies.

Owing to the permanent and induced magnetic properties of aircraft, all aircraft compasses have to be “swung” (calibrated) to cancel the magnetic effects of the aircraft itself, and this important procedure can only be done at the magnetically clean environment at Hermanus. A magnetically clean area also has important uses in the maritime sector, space weather applications, space industry applications, and in predicting environmental hazards.

The magnetically clean environment in Hermanus remains important to many industries in South Africa and beyond. The area needs to remain protected by law – one way to do this could be to expand the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (Act 21/2007) to include the Hermanus area.


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