Do electromagnetic signals forecast earthquakes? That was the question Stellar Solutions set out to answer more than 15 years ago with the QuakeFinder project. But when they learned about MagQuest, they realized QuakeFinder’s research could also be applied to geomagnetic data collection — and now they are one of five solver teams in Phase 3 of the $2.1 million global competition. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) open innovation challenge is designed to attract and accelerate new ideas to increase the efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of geomagnetic data collection for the World Magnetic Model (WMM).

Stellar Solutions’ approach involves adding miniature magnetometers as hosted payloads to planned satellite missions while expanding a ground-based magnetometer array. In Phase 3, they have partnered with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU-Boulder.

We spoke with Stellar Solutions’ Dan Schneider about their decision to enter MagQuest, collaborate internally, and bring in an outside partner for Phase 3.

Through QuakeFinder, Stellar Solutions has experience working with magnetic field data. Did you know about the WMM before MagQuest? How has your past work impacted your approach to geomagnetic data collection?
While some Stellar Solutions employees were certainly aware of the WMM, those on the MagQuest team learned of it through the contest announcement. We realized that we were a natural contestant — Stellar Solutions has deep experience with aerospace systems engineering and our humanitarian R&D effort, QuakeFinder, studies the magnetic field in relation to seismic events.

QuakeFinder taught us how to deploy a large array of scientific-grade magnetic field sensors and collect their data in a cost-efficient manner. We’re combining that knowledge with Stellar Solutions’ expertise in designing things that work in the harsh environment of space. The result is an add-on sensor package that can be easily added to pre-planned satellite missions. While the package still gives quality measurements of the magnetic field, it keeps costs much lower than a custom-built constellation of spacecraft.

There are four other teams vying for the $900,000 Phase 3 prize purse. What is your competitive edge?
Stellar Solutions is unique because we have both space and magnetic measurement collection experience in-house. There’s also a long-standing culture of “crossing the boundaries” of programs and disciplines to help out other groups within the company. This culture has allowed us to quickly figure out where we could save money without impacting the mission. Just as importantly, it helps us understand where not to cut corners so the magnetic measurements still meet the target performance criteria. Additionally, we have a large magnetic sensor network that spans multiple locations worldwide and enables us to verify magnetic measurements we make in space.

Though much of the expertise and capability was available to us within Stellar Solutions, we knew that we needed to augment our effort in Phase 3, especially in the areas of fabrication, integration, testing, and validation. We have partnered with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado Boulder, a world-class laboratory with a track record of designing and building space-qualified instruments for cutting-edge missions.

The deadline for Phase 3 submissions is in August. As the solver support period comes to a close and you prepare to submit to the judges, what is your team focusing on?
Our focus at the moment is making sure our baseline design will meet the target performance metrics and that we’ve really worked things out — we want to be confident our solution will produce a high-quality result for NGA. This includes completing key design decisions, component testing, and early prototyping, as well as developing design margins that permit adequate room for uncertainty. When it comes to aerospace engineering, the “devil is in the details,” and you have to be sure that all the pieces of the solution will come together to meet the overall objectives. Fortunately, that’s exactly what we’re good at!

What happens next

Over the next month, all five teams will continue iterating and refining their designs and testing plans for data collection methodologies. They will present their final submissions to the judging panel in September.

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