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High school students used a tiny computer to measure Earth's magnetic field from space

An illustration of Earth's magnetic field.
An illustration of Earth's magnetic field. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

High school students in Portugal have programmed a small computer on the International Space Station to measure Earth's magnetic field from orbit. 

The three students, with help from their faculty mentor, created an add-on component for a Raspberry Pi computer — a low cost, credit-card-sized computer that plugs into a computer or TV monitor — as a part of the Astro Pi Challenge, a competition sponsored by the European Space Agency and the U.K.'s Raspberry Pi Foundation. The contest asked high school students to program a Raspberry Pi computer with code to be run aboard the orbiting lab, according to a statement from the American Journal of Physics.

"I saw the Astro Pi challenge as an opportunity to broaden my knowledge and skill set, and it ended up introducing me to the complex but exciting reality of the practical world," Lourenço Faria, co-author of a paper describing the work and one of the students involved in the project, said in the statement. 

Related: 7 things the International Space Station taught us in 2021

The student team created an add-on component, named the Sense Hat, which contains a magnetometer, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and sensors for temperature, pressure and humidity. Using data from the International Space Station, the students mapped Earth's magnetic field and then compared their results to data provided by the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF), a repository of measurements from observatories and satellites used to compute Earth's magnetic field. 

Because the IGRF data are updated every five years, the students compared their measurements from April 2021 to IGRF data collected in 2020, revealing a significant, but fixed, differentiation between the two sets of data. They repeated their analysis using data collected from another 15 orbits of the space station, which showed a slight improvement. The team thinks the difference may be caused by a static magnetic field inside the space station, according to the statement

Ultimately, the students' magnetometer allowed them to reconstruct the main features of Earth's magnetic field with only three hours' worth of measurements aboard the space station. The team's efforts may also have applications for ground-based measurements using laboratory equipment or even magnetometer apps for smartphones, the researchers said in the statement. 

"Taking measurements around the globe and sharing data via the internet or social media would make for an interesting science project that could connect students in different countries," Nuno Barros e Sá, co-author of the paper and a faculty mentor for the students affiliated with the University of the Azores, said in the statement. 

The paper describing their work was published May 23 in the American Journal of Physics

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.