What could come from a chance encounter? For a University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) lab, a collegial conversation sparked an opportunity to consider innovative ways to measure the Earth’s magnetic field. Now the team is one of five finalists competing in Phase 3 of MagQuest, a $2.1 million global competition. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s open innovation challenge is designed to attract and accelerate new ideas to increase the efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of geomagnetic data collection.

COSMO, CU Boulder’s solution, takes advantage of recent innovations in CubeSat technology and novel magnetometer technology. Another key piece is the lab’s location: Not only does the team include experts from across the university, but they can also build and operate missions entirely on campus.

We spoke with CU Boulder’s Robert Marshall about what brought the team to MagQuest, what sets the team’s solution apart, and what they are working on during this phase of the competition.

A lot of people are unfamiliar with the World Magnetic Model (WMM). Did you know about this piece of critical infrastructure prior to MagQuest? What inspired you to enter this global challenge?
We were aware of the WMM prior to MagQuest, although as a space science group, we were more familiar with the International Geomagnetic Reference Field model. Our lab was developing CubeSats as a Grand Challenge project to grow the university’s expertise in space science and engineering. A chance encounter with a colleague working on geomagnetism led to a discussion about novel ways to measure the Earth’s magnetic field. We started to think about solutions to this problem and began developing our design about a year before MagQuest launched; as such, it was a natural next step to enter the competition.

What makes your approach to geomagnetic data collection uniquely innovative?
Our approach reduces the mission cost and complexity by taking advantage of the innovations in CubeSats that have come about in recent years. CubeSats are designed to a standard form factor, simplifying the process of launch preparation. They take advantage of off-the-shelf components to reduce cost and design time. We select and test those components for their magnetic noise characteristics, showing that they can meet the stringent requirements of the WMM. We also use a novel rubidium-based magnetometer that takes advantage of recent developments in ground-based magnetic field measurements.

Our solution is built around the expertise of our team. Our team members draw from the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and have extensive experience in CubeSats, magnetometer development, and magnetic cleanliness. In addition, we have the facilities, personnel, and experience to design, build, and operate our missions entirely at the university, including using our own ground stations.

You only have until August to iterate your design and testing plan. What are you focusing on?
In spacecraft engineering parlance, our design is currently nearing its Critical Design Review. We are finishing the detailed design work necessary to integrate all of the spacecraft subsystems into the spacecraft bus, and have completed extensive magnetic noise and bias characterization of all relevant subsystems. Currently, we are working on the “vectorization” of our scalar rubidium magnetometer, which will enable three vector component measurements.

During Phase 3, our priorities are refining the spacecraft design, finalizing our noise and bias estimates, and developing detailed test and verification plans. A major challenge for this project will be accurately characterizing the system once built; carefully developing test plans will ensure that we can conduct an accurate characterization.

What happens next

Over the next several months, the five teams will iterate and refine their designs and testing plans for data collection methodologies. The teams will present their final submissions to the judging panel in September.

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