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.