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to retire soon, potentially leaving all of our navigation systems — from airplanes to the map in your smartphone — out of date.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.