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Here’s something new to worry about: Navigation systems depend on measurement of magnetic forces around the globe, and the satellites that take the measurements are about to age out. But the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is on it with a special funding program called the MAGQUEST Challenge. Here with what it’s all about, NGA’s World Magnetic Model (WMM) program manager, Mike Paniccia.
Tom Temin: There’s a lot to understand here. Explain to us, first of all, what this whole magnetic measurement map of the world is all about. And it goes back some time, doesn’t it?
Mike Paniccia: Yeah. So the United States got into the magnetic mapping game around the year 1905. And before that, it had been something that the British had been doing. But basically, it all boils down to being able to navigate with a compass. Your compass will point to the magnetic North Pole, which unfortunately for all of us, is a constantly moving point. The true North Pole is just a fixed point. If you picture a globe, the top of your globe goes through a set point; you don’t have to update your globe every couple of years and move the North Pole. It’s a fixed point. But the magnetic North Pole wiggles around so the difference between where your compass is pointing and where North actually is is a constantly changing angle. That angle is called declination. But NGA produces this world magnetic model with help from NOAA and the British Geological Survey — so it’s an international program — which basically tells you, everywhere you are on Earth, this declination angle, so that you can properly navigate.
Tom Temin: Right, I guess for a ship, an inch off when it leaves port could end up miles off by the time it gets where it’s going, because of this declination angle.
Mike Paniccia: Right. Small errors over large distances create big problems.
Tom Temin: Okay, and so the satellites now that are taking these measurements, does this get baked into the GPS system? Or how does it relate to that, by the way?
Mike Paniccia: So you know, if you’re using your GPS software on your cell phone, GPS satellites can pinpoint exactly where you are, but it can’t tell you what direction you’re facing. Your phone actually uses a compass to determine okay, am I looking north? Am I looking east? What direction am I facing? And actually, the world magnetic model that NGA produces is built into your personal cell phone. So every single person that’s driving around right now using a navigation app is using the world magnetic model right now.
Tom Temin: And I imagine ships then have special instruments that tell them where they are relative to the magnetic True North that they need to navigate by.
Mike Paniccia: Exactly. Every airplane, every ship has got the WMM built into their software.
Tom Temin: So the issue then is that the European satellites that are taking the measurements and calculating these angles are about to age out of space, is that correct? So NGA is stepping in and what are you doing about that problem?
Mike Paniccia: Sure. So the current system that collects this magnetic data is called the swarm satellite. It’s actually a constellation of satellites put up by the Europeans in 2013. So you can see, satellites, unfortunately, don’t last forever. And we’re already almost 10 years in. That puts a problem. Obviously, the first question is, hey, Europeans are going to do a follow on and they had said, no, we’re not planning on doing a follow on system. So that fell to NGA to say, okay, this is potentially a problem if we don’t have a new collection system. And that spawned this MAGQUEST challenge. We didn’t start with, okay, we need someone to build us a satellite. That wasn’t where we started. We started with what is the best way to collect this needed geomagnetic data? And that first phase of MAGQUEST was literally an idea phase, send us your ideas. And we got all sorts of crazy ideas. We did have of course some satellite submissions, but we had people with drones or sea buoys, or ground stations, or airplanes, and someone even submitted an idea of putting magnetometers — which is the sensor that we need to collect this information — on carrier pigeons and flying them around. But when the dust all settled, and we got through where we are now, which is an end of phase three, we just kicked off phase four, what ended up floating to the surface were small CubeSats. So we have three teams, each with a different CubeSat competing in MAGQUEST phase four.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mike Pannicia. He’s the World Magnetic Model program manager at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. So you ended up finding that the best possible solution, as a follow on, is something nevertheless launched into space. I’m just curious, why not buoys? Since ships were doing it accurately in 1905, it seems like buoys are already everywhere. Or is it because they’re not out in the middle of the ocean, for example? Is that part of the problem?
Mike Paniccia: Right. So there actually is already a ground network on land of various magnetometer sensors called the inner magnet coalition. That covers ground; it doesn’t cover ocean. So if you add in sea buoys, you’re always in competition with a satellite that will fly over everywhere on the entire Earth multiple times over and over again. So you could do it with an airplane. That’s actually what the US Navy did from the 1950s to the 1990s, through a program called Project Magnet. They flew airplanes. But the cost of a pilot and fuel and constantly flying is just immediately dwarfed by a satellite, an unmanned satellite, that’s just sitting there constantly collecting data.
Tom Temin: So CubeSats, a particular company proposed this and do they get a grant to do this? Do they get a contract to do this? How does the program manifest itself to get these cube sats, which are, what, tiny little satellites launched into, what, near Earth orbit or where do they — how high are they?
Mike Paniccia: Low Earth orbit with a specific orientation that has them travel over every spot on Earth. Basically, this is where the genius of doing a prize challenge comes in, this MAGQUESTag prize challenge. It’s almost like a reality show where people compete and then the winner gets a bunch of money. So in our cases, you know, we had multiple winners in multiple phases. But where we are right now is that there’s three companies: a British company by the name of Iota, a U.S. company by the name of Spire, and a University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, are the three participants in MAGQUEST phase four all submitting their individual CubeSat designs, which I won’t go into too much detail on because they’re still proprietary, and it’s still a competition. But at the end of phase four, which is broken up into some sub phases — 4A, 4B, 4C — the winner support what you know, of phase four will get a prize, a monetary prize, the exact dollar amount still TBD. But it’ll be in the on the order of a million millions of dollars by the end of this multi-year phase. And from there, NGA hopes to enter a data-buy agreement. So where the company will be responsible for owning and operating satellite, but NGO just buys the magnetic data from them.
Tom Temin: So they will then presumably build these CubeSats that are the winning entries. And by the way, these are about the size of a breadbox. I mean, the CubeSat is something you can hold in your hands, right?
Tom Temin: So they will then have to seek a commercial launch partner to get them up there, is that fair to say?
Mike Paniccia: Yeah, some of that NGA, may help for at least the first, the very first CubeSat. The prototype will be part of phase 4C. And so ideally, by the end of phase 4C, all three of these companies will have a CubeSat flying, and then we pick the winner based on the best data quality, because that’s really what this is all about. It’s getting the data that we need. Yes, from then on out the CubeSat, their lifetimes are varied between the three companies, but on the order of two to five years at most, we would need to keep relaunching.
Tom Temin: Got it. So I guess in between, you could keep improving the designs of the CubeSats for the next round. And how many will it take to cover the world? Are they going to test one CubeSat to begin with, but sounds like it might take dozens to cover the whole earth.
Mike Paniccia: So because the satellite’s constantly moving, we don’t need all the entire Earth’s data captured every second. So we can have one satellite just sort of flying around orbiting the Earth over and over. That’s okay. Of course, the issue being that if it breaks down, then you have nothing. So what we’ll probably end up doing is launch it hypothetically every two years, even though the lifetime is three years. So there’s overlap so that in case there’s a sensor failure, or something happens on launch, we don’t have any major gaps in data.
Tom Temin: And the revenue will be federal money to pay for the data on the ongoing basis. And does the federal government or NGA make that data available to anyone that needs the declination and the magnetic shape of the earth?
Mike Paniccia: Yes, so the magnetic model and the products from the data have always been free. And they’ll always continue to be free. Because that’s a product coming from the federal government. It’s still TBD as to whether or not the raw data will be; the Europeans in their current model do give it away for free. That would be something we would like to do. But that’s going to depend on contract negotiations.
Tom Temin: And just a wild card question here: Does China take advantage of this data, for example? Or do they have their own CubeSats or some other system?
Mike Paniccia: So China has their own satellite; it’s not a CubeSat, it’s the sort of old school traditional style big honkin’ satellite that’s got a bunch of sensors on it, one of which happens to be a magnetometer, which is sort of what swarm is. So what we’re doing by turning this into a CubeSat is innovating for the future. It’s cheaper. And if we can get a CubeSat to work, the cost savings over decades would be high. But I don’t know if China actually uses the WMM, or if they have an internal thing, but they definitely have their own satellite because they like to brag about it.
Tom Temin: Sure. And so the CubeSat fly-off, if you will, of the three companies when will they launch?
Mike Paniccia: Hypothetically, phase 4A will run until 2023. Phase 4B — which is, again, building a ground prototype — will go for another two years, about 2025. So we’re looking at ’26-’27 for the actual launch and phase 4C where we start to assess the data and declare a winner.
Tom Temin: Mike Paniccia is the World Magnetic Model Program Manager at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Thanks so much for joining me.