NGA’s World Magnetic Model enables precision navigation

The World Magnetic Model is a critical piece of digital infrastructure that is key to global navigation and corrects a standard compass reading. The WMM provides declination values for all points on Earth, which NGA WMM program manager Mike Paniccia, explains is the “difference between magnetic north, where your compass points, and geographic north, also known as true north, the fixed point on the top of a spinning globe where all the meridians meet.”

The need for the WMM comes from the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field is constantly changing all around the globe, and the magnetic North Pole travels around 40 kilometers per year. The WMM updates every five years for accuracy, with the most recent update taking place in 2020. The next update will be published in December 2024. Without the production of WMM, the Department of Defense, North Atlantic Treaty Organizations, international partners and commercial systems would no longer be able to perform precision navigation. Additionally, the DOD performs a variety of other magnetic-based missions that require precise knowledge of Earth’s magnetic fields.

Magnetic data used for navigation has been collected since 1902 by the United States and other countries. The first declination tables were published in 1905 by Dr. Louis Bauer, a member of the NGA GEOINT Hall of Fame. Since 2000, magnetic data collected by various European Space Agency satellites has been the primary source used for WMM. The current constellation of satellites in use by the ESA is called Swarm. Launched in 2013, there are no current plans for a follow-on satellite system. In an effort to plan for the next magnetic collection method, NGA has been tasked with defining a new solution for collecting magnetic data by 2027 to be used in WMM2030. Part of this effort is a type of competition or challenge called MagQuest.

“The MagQuest Prize Challenge, currently in its fourth and final phase, was created to develop this solution,” said Paniccia. “In this phase, three challenge participants, called solvers, are building and launching nano-satellites with magnetometers, which are sensors that collect magnetic data, with the end goal of evaluating their ability to support WMM production. Successful solvers will then be considered eligible to enter into a data purchase agreement with NGA for future magnetic data.”
MagQuest is a partnership with NASA who assists with the day-to-day running of the challenge as well as using their magnetic testing facility at Goddard Space Flight Center to assess the magnetic field measurement performance of solver submissions. The current MagQuest solvers are U.S. company Spire, British company Iota, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The WMM is based on requirements within a military specification, but WMM customers are not limited to the DOD. WMM is publicly available and is in use by the U.K. Ministry of Defense, NATO, the International Hydrographic Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as others. WMM is also embedded in hundreds of millions of cell phones for use in all navigation apps.

The WMM is a joint product of NGA and the U.K. Defense Geographic Centre with development and publication by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Geological Survey. The WMM also ingests some data from a global collection of ground observatories called INTERMAGNET.  Each ground observatory is owned and operated by numerous agencies, organizations and universities from many different countries.  The U.S. ground observatories are maintained by the United States Geological Survey.

The WMM doesn’t have an end goal in the traditional sense. There is no foreseeable completion date for WMM or a pending lack of need. The continuing goal of the WMM is to ensure long-term, stable safety of navigation for humanity.

“Without it, we would regress to pre-1900s level of directional accuracy,” said Paniccia. “This would make modern navigation inaccurate and since runways are all aligned to magnetic field lines, air travel would be severely impacted.”

For more information on MagQuest and updates on Phase 4bc visit

Source: NGA

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