What is the World Magnetic Model?

Earth is a giant magnet. Compasses — both digital and analog — are oriented by the magnetic force at a user’s location. Since geographic and magnetic poles do not align, geomagnetic models like the World Magnetic Model (WMM) correct for this difference. As the Earth’s magnetic field is constantly changing, the difference between geographic and magnetic poles also changes, and the WMM must be regularly updated.

The WMM is a joint product of the United States’ National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the United Kingdom’s Defence Geographic Centre. It is produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) at five-year intervals to account for the evolution of the magnetic field structure. Recent erratic movement of the north magnetic pole led to the release of an out-of-cycle update to the WMM in early 2019.

An opportunity to rethink geomagnetic data collection

Production of the WMM currently uses space-based magnetic field measurements that the European Space Agency (ESA) Swarm mission has provided since 2013. Swarm mission satellites contain several instruments capable of producing a variety of measurements, including magnetic vector field measurements. To ensure sustainability of the WMM, the U.S. government is taking a proactive approach to identifying new methods of data collection independent of Swarm. (Learn more about the World Magnetic Model in the 2015 World Magnetic Model Report).

The World Magnetic Model is used every day around the world

The WMM is embedded in thousands of systems. More than a billion smartphone users depend on the WMM to point them in the right direction when they use mobile navigation apps. Drivers rely on the WMM to power the compasses in their cars.

The WMM is also critical for military and commercial uses around the world. Among other applications, it supports navigation and attitude determination for submarines, satellites, and aircraft, while also informing operational logistics like the numbering of runways.

Beyond navigation, the WMM ensures precise orientation that supports applications in industries as diverse as energy and telecommunications. (Learn more about the applications of the WMM in Resources.)

MagQuest, a multiphase open innovation challenge

With MagQuest, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is accelerating novel approaches to geomagnetic data collection for the World Magnetic Model. This open innovation challenge has attracted and accelerated new ideas to increase the efficiency, reliability, and sustainability of geomagnetic data collection. Solvers from small businesses, academic institutions, labs, startups, and other organizations have participated in the competition.

The first two phases (March 2019 through September 2019) awarded $1.2 million in cash prizes. NGA invited six Phase 2 innovator teams to participate in Phase 3, which awarded an additional $900,000 in cash prizes and named three winners. Additional monetary and technical support is provided in Phase 4.

Phase 4 started in 2021 with three participating teams. In Phase 4a, teams developed and tested magnetometers in collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. In Phase 4b, teams will build their nanosatellites, integrate their magnetometers, conduct final testing and plan for launch and data collection.

Phase 1: Concept

Phase 1 was open to all eligible solvers from March 21, 2019 to May 16, 2019. In Phase 1:

  • The challenge sought concepts that proposed novel methods or technologies that may be promising to provide sufficient data for the WMM.
  • A successful concept considered all elements of a solution (sensor, platform, data analysis), but may have highlighted one element more than others.
  • An informational webinar was hosted for interested solvers. View the webinar recording.
  • Ten winners were nominated by the judges according to official Phase 1 selection criteria. The total Phase 1 prize pool of $200,000 was distributed evenly across Phase 1 winners. Meet the Phase 1 winners and read about their concepts here.

Phase 2: Design

Phase 2 was open to solvers from Phase 1, as well as new solvers who did not participate in the first phase of the challenge. Submissions opened June 20, 2019 and closed August 28, 2019. In Phase 2:

  • The challenge sought detailed designs and plans for data collection methodologies, including a concept of operations, a description of expected performance and potential risks, and an overview of potential future program management.
  • A successful design detailed all elements of a solution: sensor, platform, and data analysis. The sensor is the instrumentation that makes geomagnetic field measurements, the platform holds or carries this instrumentation, and data analysis refers to the mechanism for processing and distributing data.
  • Educational webinars were hosted for interested solvers. Webinar topics included an orientation to Phase 2 submissions and teaming information, a technical deep-dive on relevant submission topics, and an overview of program management considerations.
  • Five (5) winners were nominated by the judges according to official Phase 2 selection criteria. The total Phase 2 prize pool of $1 million was distributed evenly across Phase 2 winners. Meet the Phase 2 winners and read about their designs here.

Phase 3: Iterate and refine

Six innovator teams from Phase 2 were invited to participate in Phase 3, which began in March 2020 and concluded in October 2020. In Phase 3:

  • The challenge sought refined designs and testing plans for WMM data collection methodologies.
  • A successful submission will have demonstrated completion of major design decisions, describe specific hardware and software selections, detail testing approaches to mitigate risks, and provide evidence in support of overall performance.
  • Subject matter experts from academia, industry, and government provided expertise in sensors, platform engineering, mission operations and program management, the World Magnetic Model, and geomagnetism to participating teams.
  • Judges nominated Phase 3 winners according to official Phase 3 selection criteria. The total Phase 3 prize pool was $900,000. Meet the Phase 3 winners and read about their solutions here.

Phase 4: Build and launch

Three innovator teams from Phase 3 were invited to participate in Phase 4, which runs from 2021 to 2026.

  • Phase 4 teams will build, test and launch their solutions to collect high-quality geomagnetic data for evaluation against WMM performance specifications.
  • An expert review panel will evaluate progress across key milestones during Phase 4bc, which is anticipated to conclude in September 2026.
  • The teams will have access to experts from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Phase 4bc will also provide teams access to external mentors with interdisciplinary perspectives spanning magnetic measurement, space-based technology engineering, and successful mission management.
  • The results of MagQuest will inform NGA’s acquisition strategy for a WMM global magnetic field data collection capability, with an expected procurement that can provide operational capacity to support production of the WMM2030.
  • Monetary and technical support are provided in Phase 4.