NASA Now Has a Self-Calibrating Magnetometer

The prototype hybrid magnetometer may fly on a sounding-rocket mission, called VISIONS-2, next year. Image credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

NASA has achieved much since the agency’s founding in 1958. They can put a human on the moon. They can put remote-controlled rovers on Mars and send probes and cameras to observe additional moons and planets in our solar system.

However, there’s one obstacle NASA has yet to overcome. The current type of magnetometers — the devices scientists use to measure magnetic fields in space — eventually degrade, and there’s no way to remotely calibrate them. It’s an obstacle that causes a few issues for the NASA team, but nothing as troublesome as trying to shrink these devices down to a more manageable size. Luckily, that is about to change.

Todd Bonalsky, a technologist from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is working on a self-calibrating magnetometer to solve this problem. More specifically, the devices can be used to measure both the intensity and orientation of magnetic lines through the use of CubeSats and spacecraft, thanks to its smaller form.

The latter means the devices can be installed and flown using more conventional spacecraft, like rockets and shuttles. More promising, however, is the idea that they’ll fit inside CubeSats, furthering space research and studies.

What Are CubeSats?

A CubeSat, often referred to as a U-class spacecraft, is nothing more than a miniature satellite which is generally used for space research and measurements. They derive their name from their cubic shape.

Because they are so small, traditionally, magnetometers have not fit inside CubeSats. But thanks to Bonalsky’s miniaturized fluxgate magnetometer, such a thing is possible. In fact, NASA recently launched the Dellingr CubeSat mission, which was a success.

On top of all that, Bonalsky’s device is also self-calibrating. This is possible — along with the size reduction — thanks to a merger between two types of magnetometers.

The more precise fluxgate magnetometer and the optically pumped magnetometer have been combined and shrunk into a single package. What that means is the entire unit can fit inside a CubeSat, offering accurate and effective measurements for scientists using the technology.

The improved magnetometers will provide a lot of unprecedented information about the way Earth’s constantly evolving magnetic fields operate.

When working with equipment like the magnetometers NASA scientists use, calibration in any industry is necessary to ensure accurate and precise data returns. Calibration is a regular form of maintenance that can help keep equipment and hardware reading and measuring accurately.

Devices such as balances, scales, dimensional tools and surface plates all require calibration. Obviously, magnetometers require frequent calibration as well, which is something of a problem when they’re located miles above the Earth’s atmosphere embedded inside a satellite or spacecraft.

The system Bonalsky developed offers both popular measurement techniques and can self-calibrate without human input. That’s important because both a hybrid system and self-calibrating system are necessary to advance the industry.

He says they’ve already shown “We can take […] large, power-hungry fluxgate magnetometers and shrink them down to fly on CubeSats,” which are much smaller in size. But his current goal is to “incorporate our miniaturized fluxgate with an absolute atomic magnetometer” which will result in a “fully self-calibrating, miniaturized vector magnetometer for [use in] CubeSats and small satellites.”

Bonalsky also makes it clear “This hasn’t been done before.” So, you can imagine, it would make him not only a pioneer in the industry, but a father of the advancement of modern Earth and space science.

This is clearly something we need to do if we intend to gather more information about our planet and the surrounding universe.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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