One of the most radical ideas ever developed by the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel only costs $200 and transforms middle and high school students into NASA research scientists.
Called an EZIE-Mag, the low-cost magnetometer kit is designed to be built by students who will use it to take measurements of Earth’s magnetic field. APL is planning to make and freely distribute 700 of these kits to teachers and students across the United States, with a special focus on Indigenous schools.
Measurements collected by students will complement data from NASA’s upcoming Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer mission, expected to launch in late 2024.
APL designed the EZIE spacecraft and will lead and manage the mission. EZIE will deploy three suitcase-sized CubeSats that will move pole to pole to map Earth’s ionospheric electrojets and gather data on the Earth-Space electrical current circuit.
The EZIE mission is funded by the Heliophysics Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and is managed by the Explorers Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
By studying the CubeSat data and student measurements, scientists will have greater insight into the physics of Earth’s magnetosphere, and that of any magnetized planets in our universe.
The mission will also help them create better models for predicting space weather, which includes phenomena from auroras to geomagnetic storms fueled by the sun. That knowledge could help prevent costly damage to satellites, communications technology and power grids.
“EZIE-Mag provides the mission with a unique opportunity to engage citizen scientists in this important research,” said Nelli Mosavi-Hoyer, project manager for EZIE at APL.
APL’s Rob Barnes, EZIE ground systems engineer, and Jesper Gjerloev, EZIE project scientist, came up with the idea for affordable, ground-based magnetometers long before the EZIE mission was envisioned.
“[We thought] it should be inclusive, not exclusive,” said Gjerloev, noting that scientific magnetometers typically cost between $25,000 and $500,000. “The problem was that it just wasn’t feasible.”
The magnetic fields they were trying to measure were also tiny, on the order of a few tens of nanoteslas.
When Barnes discovered a new type of magneto-inductive sensor that could measure fields as low as 7-12 nT, he brought the sensor and a Raspberry Pi computer module together to produce a working prototype on his dining room table.
“After looking at the data, the magnetometer was performing far better than we could have hoped, meaning we could do real science with it,” Barnes said.
So far the team has distributed 20 kits to various researchers and students, and has 60 more on deck.
APL’s EZIE team wanted to target Indigenous schools with their idea to provide opportunity to underserved and overlooked communities.
“As scientists and engineers we have been incredibly lucky to work on a mission like this, and most of us learned about science and technology from teachers who inspired us to pursue this as a career,” Barnes said. “Many students never get that chance. We’re hoping that students and enthusiasts making a real contribution to the EZIE mission will inspire a few of them to pursue a career in science and engineering.”
According to Barnes, there are currently around 800 to 1,000 science-grade magnetometers deployed around the world.
“With EZIE-Mag, we are going to almost double that,” he said. “EZIE-Mag might lead to some new scientific discoveries, as we now have far more data available to us.”
It’s another way that APL is channeling its dedication to encouraging students to push the boundaries of science and technology, he added. Its platforms include an intern program that caters to both high school and college students, and APL also runs a summer space camp for younger students to learn about space missions.
“If schools are interested in joining the EZIE-Mag team, we would welcome them to get in touch with us through the sign-up page,” at https://ezie.jhuapl.edu/outreach/ezie-mag, Barnes said.
Mass producing 700 EZIE-Mag kits is time-consuming, so the EZIE team recruited Adebayo Eisape, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, to help formalize the process and make the kits easy to assemble.
“You get all the parts and they just snap together, and you’re done,” said Barnes.
Eisape worked on the design, fabricating the printed circuit board, and prepping the kits for mass distribution, and the team collaborated with APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department to help build out the kits.
Eisape said optimizing the kits for the end user rather than the tool’s purpose shifted his thinking about design.
“[It] needs to work, and it needs to work for everyone all the time,” he said.
Best of all, Gjerloev said, is the fact that students will be actively participating in real research.
“As a middle schooler or high schooler, you can say, ‘I’m actually providing data and measurements that are important and being used for a NASA mission,’” he said. “That’s the way it should be. It’s much more exciting than sending out a flyer.”