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MagQuest

Millions of dollars in funding to build, launch & operate new technology that maps the world’s magnetic fields.
stage:
Phase 4a Launched
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Overview

Challenge Overview

Powering the Future World Magnetic Model

We rely on an accurate map of the Earth’s magnetic field to power our daily lives — from our smartphones’ GPS to our credit card swipes. MagQuest offers millions in funding for the world’s leading innovators to build, launch and operate the next generation technology that measures our planet’s shifting magnetic field.

Three teams continue in the current phase of MagQuest:

 

 

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is sponsoring MagQuest to accelerate novel approaches to geomagnetic data collection for the World Magnetic Model (WMM). Because the Earth’s magnetic fields are constantly in motion, government agencies and private businesses alike depend on regularly updated measurements to keep modern life running smoothly. All of our navigation systems, from the GPS guiding commercial airliners to the map apps in our smartphones count on the WMM. Yet the current WMM relies on data from an aging satellite system. 

With MagQuest, NGA aims to inspire and encourage the development of powerful new technologies to collect the magnetic measurements essential for updating and maintaining the WMM. During this stage of the competition, Phase 4a, the three remaining teams will build their proposed magnetometers — tools to measure magnet forces. Then, their magnetometers will undergo independent testing at NASA’s world-renowned Goddard Space Flight Center. 

The three teams will receive up to several million dollars in awards and are competing for a piece of an up to $1.55 million incentive prize purse in Phase 4a, plus an invitation to move onto the next phase and put their magnetometers on satellites and ultimately launch their innovative systems.

Timeline
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Challenge Updates

Meet the MagQuest Team: Spire/SB Quantum

March 22, 2022, 12:05 p.m. PDT by Liz Treadwell

Sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the MagQuest challenge aims to accelerate technologies to measure Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field, and inform the next version of the World Magnetic Model. Although you may never have heard of the WMM, it powers navigation systems in commercial airlines and your smartphone, among other things. In this series, HeroX introduces the three teams moving to the current phase of the challenge.

 

Spire and SBQuantum were two separate teams in earlier phases of the MagQuest challenge, each with different strengths, until Phase 4A. Now, they have combined forces with hopes of becoming an even more formidable contender. 

SBQuantum is a small startup, built around the innovation of co-founder David Roy-Guay: a diamond magnetometer. Roy-Guay’s doctoral thesis and postdoctoral studies at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada centered around his invention, and his young company already has success using the new technology in mining, particularly to help find critical minerals used in batteries to support climate initiatives. 

SBQuantum has already excelled in open innovation challenges, including several Canadian Defense challenges and a mining challenge.

“While SBQuantum has gained really good traction in the mining space by making better magnetometers and using them in new ways,” says Roy-Guay. “MagQuest represents an opportunity to further refine the magnetometer and apply it in space.”

Spire, on the other hand, has extensive experience in space, having launched more than 100 satellites into low-earth orbit. Spire operates a constellation of over 110 satellites that collect data tracking weather, air traffic, maritime activity and soon — if they are successful in this challenge — Earth’s shifting magnetic field. But they have never launched a magnetometer to space, and this is their first innovation challenge. Mark Carhart, who works in business development, saw an opportunity to leverage the company’s existing strengths and expand into a potential new business area, and threw their hat into the ring.

“Mark saw the opportunity and took a leap of faith on our part,” says Jordan Bridgeman, Senior Technology Project Manager at Spire.

After the second Phase of MagQuest, sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which is sponsoring MagQuest, the two teams join forces. The hope is that the innovative and promising diamond magnetometer and proprietary algorithms created by SBQuantum, plus Spire’s extensive experience building and launching satellites and processing the data they collect, would make a winning combination. Early signals indicate the newly forged partnership is off to a strong start.

“We coalesced once we got to an agreement for our approach to Phase 4A within a matter of days, which is no mean feat because these documents are quite complicated,” says Carhart. “That bodes well for our work that will start to commence here shortly.”

Over the next several months, the team will be focused on polishing and refining the magnetometer in preparation for independent testing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

“David is coming with a fantastic, state-of-the-art instrument that laid the groundwork, so now we get to focus more on the minutiae,” says Bridgeman. “Science-grade magnetometry has a lot of gotchas and gremlins we have to bring to the surface. Thankfully we have the resources, expertise, and body of knowledge so we just have to bring the right people together to deliver for MagQuest.”

The team collaborates remotely, primarily from Virginia, Michigan and Quebec, with a combination of both fun and professionalism.

“We treat everything as a cool new adventure, and that allows us to fail forward and work together,” says Rachel Taylor, co-founder and COO of SBQuantum.

Both parts of the team cannot help but feel inspired by the significance of the task at hand. MagQuest was created by NGA to accelerate innovative ways to measure Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field and provide the data for the next iteration of the World Magnetic Model, which is fundamental to everything from commercial airline navigation to the map apps in your phone.

“This is a small club of people that gets to build something that collects this data to feed government, military and apps on your smartphone,” says Bridgeman. “There are so many areas of our lives that it touches. How amazing is it to work on that platform?”

Taylor, who has helped push SBQuantum to its early successes, agrees.

“This is a truly game-changing way of conceiving the way we see the world,” Taylor says. “This is the new smart connected future we need to move into the 22nd century.”

 

David Roy-Guay (top) and Rachel Taylor (bottom) are co-founders of SB Quantum, which is developing an innovative diamond magnetometer for the MagQuest challenge.

SB Quantum’s magnetometer relies on a diamond, which holds up well in the harsh conditions of space.

Jordan Bridgeman (top) is Spire’s Senior Technology Project Manager and lead Technical PM for the MagQuest Challenge. Mark Carhart (bottom) is the Director for Intelligence Community Sales at Spire and the business development lead for Spire’s MagQuest proposal. 


Meet the MagQuest Team: Iota Technology

March 16, 2022, 2:50 p.m. PDT by Liz Treadwell

Sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the MagQuest challenge aims to accelerate technologies to measure Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field, and inform the next version of the World Magnetic Model. Although you may never have heard of the WMM, it powers the navigation systems in commercial airlines and your smartphone, among other things. In this series, HeroX introduces the three teams moving to the current phase of the challenge.

 

Hugo Shelley is no stranger to open innovation challenges. He’s won at least half a dozen challenges on the HeroX platform alone, including several sponsored by NASA, earning him the accolade NASA Labs Star Solver.

Shelley is especially attracted to challenges that have the potential to move beyond the idea stage and be developed into a usable technology with real-world applications. That’s a major appeal of MagQuest. Governments and companies that provide navigation systems to airlines and shipping vessels have a real need for the technologies that the teams are creating, which will measure the Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field. Furthermore, the rules of the challenge set forth by the sponsor, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, allow the innovators to maintain their intellectual property and, if successful, sell the data they collect about Earth’s magnetic field.

Now in its fourth phase, and with the three teams mere months away from testing their technologies with NASA, MagQuest demands most of Shelley’s attention. But his day job previously revolved around innovation, too. As the founder of the London-based Iota Technology, Shelley worked as an innovation consultant focused on what he describes as “quietly technical products.” He helped companies apply new technologies to solve problems, working on a diverse array of products including educational robots and high-efficiency nanosatellite antennae. 

His approach to that work, and to MagQuest, both have roots in an even earlier endeavor: magic. As a newly minted graduate of University of Oxford, where he studied physics and philosophy, Shelley started out designing electronic illusions for magicians.

“Immersing myself in the world of magic and theater helped to define my attitude towards technology as something that should invisibly augment our experience of the world, rather than being desirable in its own right,” says Shelley. 

When you consider his assignments here to create the “impossible” within a set period of time, it’s not all that different from the pursuit of innovation challenges.

“Even though stage illusions are a world away from geomagnetic data collection, in both situations, you’re forced to think outside of the box in order to find a method that works,” he says.

Shelley’s proposed technology for MagQuest is similar to the technology currently used to measure Earth’s magnetic fields — except dramatically smaller, lighter and lower power. The whole device — satellite and magnetometer — fits within a 30x10x10 centimeter cubesat (a size commonly referred to as 3U) and can be built with inexpensive, off-the-shelf materials. If it can do the job as intended, it will be significantly cheaper than the existing technology.

As MagQuest has evolved, Shelley has expanded his team significantly, pulling in experts and innovators from all across Europe and North America — many of whom have never met in person. He is working with individuals in Belgium, France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S, including team members from Oxford Space Systems, AAC Clyde Space and Arsec, as well as freelancers. He’s also gained the support of the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK, which provides lab space and expertise as Iota evolves from a small start-up to an international collaboration.

“Many unsolved technical challenges exist because they require an unusual blend of specialist knowledge that doesn't often exist in one place,” says Shelley. “Innovation challenges have been a chance for me to build up a network of creative and talented individuals who are passionate about the application of technology to global problems.”

Iota Technology’s headcount makes it the smallest team still participating in MagQuest, although with all of its partner organizations and contractors, its team may have the largest geographic footprint.

“The part of our work I’m most proud of, is that all team members, regardless of the subsystem they are working on, are fully engaged with the mission goals and have gone above and beyond to ensure that we can meet them,” he says.

Over the coming months, Shelley and team Iota’s partners will be working feverishly to prepare their proposed magnetometer to be independently tested  at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. While millions of dollars are at stake in the MagQuest competition, and potentially millions more in the sale of data collected by a successful technology, the project promises to yield other, perhaps immeasurable, rewards.

“Whether designing theatrical dream worlds or nanosatellite payloads, I’ve always found myself drawn to technology that allows us to see the world in new ways,” says Shelley. “Maybe that’s what magic really is.”

 

Already a winner of several innovation challenges, founder of Iota Technology Hugo Shelley hopes to see his proposal for MagQuest fully developed and launched to space.

Iota Technology proposes a very small, lightweight, and low-power satellite to collect data about the Earth’s magnetic field for the MagQuest challenge.


Meet the MagQuest Team: University of Colorado Boulder

March 10, 2022, 10:15 a.m. PST by Liz Treadwell

Sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the MagQuest challenge aims to accelerate technologies to measure Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field, and inform the next version of the World Magnetic Model. Although you may never have heard of the WMM, it powers the navigation systems in commercial airlines and your smartphone, among other things. In this series, HeroX introduces the three teams moving to the current phase of the challenge.

 

Robert Marshall, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, first learned about how the World Magnetic Model gets created during a chance encounter at a campus meeting. Updated every five years, the WMM relies on data from a small cluster of satellites run by the European Space Agency known as “Swarm.” However, Swarm is expected to retire soon, potentially leaving all of our navigation systems — from airplanes to the map in your smartphone — out of date.

“We started talking about how my group does a lot of work developing cubesats, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could collect the data for the World Magnetic Model from a cubesat?” Marshall recalls. 

A couple of years later, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would launch the MagQuest innovation challenge which offered millions of dollars in incentive prizes in hopes of inspiring new technologies that could collect the geomagnetic data needed to create the next World Magnetic Model. By the time MagQuest was announced, Marshall had already received seed funding from the university to begin exploring whether it would actually be possible for a cubesat to collect precise enough data of the Earth’s magnetic field. Early findings suggested to Marshall and his colleagues that the answer is yes.

Encouraged by his early findings, Marshall entered CU Boulder in the MagQuest innovation challenge, and then put together a dream team for the competition by leveraging the resources and expertise of multiple university departments and labs. His colleagues in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics have extensive experience working with NASA missions, including the first student-built instrument to ever fly on a NASA planetary mission, the Student Dust Counter. Svenja Knappe, an associate research professor in mechanical engineering, specializes in small scalar magnetometers. She’s also the co-founder of FieldLine Inc., a company that produces magnetometers for a variety of purposes, and will ultimately build the CU Boulder team’s instrument. Finally, Marshall’s home department, aerospace engineering, has deep expertise in cubesats. 

“Cubesats are unique in that until recently, they have largely been used as an educational tool, so outside of a fairly niche market in for-profits, universities hold most of the expertise on cubesats,” explains Marshall. 

At any given time, he says there are almost a dozen active cubesat projects at LASP and CU Boulder. “We learn something new in every meeting, such as how to make sure solar panels have no magnetic noise, so we can essentially leverage the developments from one mission and incorporate it into our design for MagQuest.”

CU Boulder has succeeded through the first three phases of MagQuest, and is now one of just three remaining teams in the challenge. One of the biggest keys to success might be the constant flow of new and enthusiastic graduate students who can devote their time to the MagQuest project.

“We have no shortage of students who are enthusiastic and excited about working on space missions,” Marshall says. “Students display the best qualities when working on a project like MagQuest — they come to us excited about it, really wanting to contribute, be collaborative, be communicative, and happy to share credit with one another.”

The innovation of the CU Boulder team is to put a tiny magnetometer with two modes — scalar and vector — on its cubesat. The magnetometer uses a cell of rubidium gas, a laser, radio frequency coils and a detector to measure the magnetic field. The entire instrument is smaller than your thumb, and will sit on one end of a cubesat that is 10x10 cm in girth and 60 cm long.

The challenge facing CU Boulder, and the other MagQuest teams, is that radios, torque rods, batteries and solar panels on a satellite all have currents that create their own magnetic fields and will affect the measurements of their finely calibrated magnetometers. 

“A magnetometer could be extremely precise, with zero error in a zero noise scenario,” says Marshall, “but we have to perfectly characterize the noise of the satellite at every moment of the mission.”

In addition to working through that problem, CU Boulder will spend the next several months ensuring that their magnetometer can survive in the unforgiving conditions of space.  Between now and the MagQuest testing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, CU Boulder will test its magnetometer in a vacuum and on a vibration table — both of which they have access to on campus — to see what breaks it, and then redesign it to be more robust and space-ready.

Although there are millions of dollars in prizes and the potential value of the magnetic data their project might eventually collect, Marshall believes the CU Boulder team has already exceeded expectations.

“Until now, the development of our team’s spacecraft has been almost exclusively by students in a design and development class,” says Marshall.  “When I look at the three teams moving onto Phase 4, the others are private companies with professional engineers, and our spacecraft developed almost entirely by students is on par with them. That’s something to be proud of.”

 

The expertise of faculty and enthusiasm of students power the CU Boulder MagQuest team.

Robert Marshall, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, leads CU Boulder’s MagQuest team.

CU Boulder’s proposed spacecraft, designed primarily by graduate students, is 60x10x10 cm.


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