Measuring the Earth’s Magnetic Field

NGA called upon solvers to submit novel approaches to geomagnetic data collection for WMM


The Earth’s magnetic field is continually shifting. Thus, the mapping of it is an ongoing task. In 1905, the Galilee set sail around the Pacific Ocean as part of the Carnegie Institution Department of Terrestrial Magnetism’s project to measure and map the planet’s magnetic field. The brigantine sailed on until 1908, but its magnetic welding interfered with the results. Years later, the Institution built another ship, the Carnegie, designed to minimize magnetic interference. The Carnegie sailed for 20 years mapping before it exploded while refueling at the port of Apia, Samoa.

Constant updating of the Earth’s magnetic field became more efficient once airplanes could capture magnetic field data. Today, the task is made even more efficient with the use of satellites, the readings from which feed into the World Magnetic Model (WMM), released every five years by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). And now, NGA is looking for the next best way to capture this data.

NGA is accelerating novel approaches to geomagnetic data collection for the WMM with a multiphase open innovation challenge, MagQuest, designed to attract and accelerate new ideas to increase the efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of geomagnetic data collection.

“The importance of the World Magnetic Model cannot be overstated—it is critical to keeping everyday navigational systems running,” said NGA Senior GEOINT Authority J.N. Markiel, Ph.D., in a press release. “MagQuest has advanced scientific and technical innovations that could be key to the future of geomagnetic data collection, specific approaches that are both sustainable and scalable.”

Phase One of the competition was open to all eligible solvers and sought concepts that proposed novel methods or technologies to collect geomagnetic data for the WMM. In this phase, NGA distributed $200,000 among the ten winners. Some winning projects included: a swarm of picosatellites in Low Earth Orbit mapping the magnetic field; diamond magnetometer (Qmag) technology integrated into a network of CubeSats and commercial airplanes; and a constellation of nanosatellites with self-calibrating, solid-state magnetometers.

Phase Two was also open to all eligible solvers and sought detailed designs and plans for data collection methodologies, including a concept of operations, a description of expected performance and potential risks, and an overview of future program management. In Phase Two, NGA distributed $1 million among the five winners. Some winning projects included: an international network of 103 automated magnetic observatories on land and the seafloor; a CubeSat specifically designed and tested for magnetic cleanliness and accurate data from a compact form factor; and a global constellation of CubeSats that could provide greater redundancy and increased data quality.

Phase Three invited a select group of teams from the previous phase to iterate and refine their designs and testing plans for geomagnetic data collection methodologies. The teams had six months to prepare a submission that demonstrated completion of design decisions, described specific hardware and software selections, detailed testing approaches to mitigate risks, and provided evidence in support of overall performance.

This final phase also offered the opportunity to interact with subject matter experts to produce the strongest results. First-place winner Iota Technology received $350,000 and two second-place winners—Spire Global and SBQuantum, and the University of Colorado Boulder—received $225,000 each. Runners-up Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium and Stellar Solutions each received $50,000. Winning projects included a 3U CubeSat featuring a novel deployable boom and digital magnetometers, and a diamond quantum magnetometer system deployed on a CubeSat.

“We are thrilled by how open innovation has allowed us to bring pioneering ideas to life and spur novel technological advancements,” Markiel said in a press release. “The competition has not only driven new approaches to geomagnetic data collection but also shows how open innovation can be used to support the future of critical scientific infrastructure.”


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