Helium Vector Magnetometer (HVM) of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft

A magnetometer is an instrument that measures magnetism—either the magnetization of a magnetic material like a ferromagnet, or the direction, strength, or relative change of a magnetic field at a particular location. A compass is a simple type of magnetometer, one that measures the direction of an ambient magnetic field.

The first magnetometer capable of measuring the absolute magnetic intensity was invented by Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1833 and notable developments in the 19th century included the Hall Effect, which is still widely used.

Magnetometers are widely used for measuring the Earth's magnetic field and in geophysical surveys to detect magnetic anomalies of various types. They are also used in the military to detect submarines. Consequently, some countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia, classify the more sensitive magnetometers as military technology, and control their distribution.

Magnetometers can be used as metal detectors: they can detect only magnetic (ferrous) metals, but can detect such metals at a much larger depth than conventional metal detectors; they are capable of detecting large objects, such as cars, at tens of metres, while a metal detector's range is rarely more than 2 metres.

In recent years, magnetometers have been miniaturized to the extent that they can be incorporated in integrated circuits at very low cost and are finding increasing use as miniaturized compasses (MEMS magnetic field sensor).


Magnetic fields

Magnetic fields are vector quantities characterized by both strength and direction. The strength of a magnetic field is measured in units of tesla in the SI units, and in gauss in the cgs system of units. 10,000 gauss are equal to one tesla.[1] Measurements of the Earth's magnetic field are often quoted in units of nanotesla (nT), also called a gamma.[2] The Earth's magnetic field can vary from 20,000 to 80,000 nT depending on location, fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field are on the order of 100 nT, and magnetic field variations due to magnetic anomalies can be in the picotesla (pT) range.[3] Gaussmeters and teslameters are magnetometers that measure in units of gauss or tesla, respectively. In some contexts, magnetometer is the term used for an instrument that measures fields of less than 1 millitesla (mT) and gaussmeter is used for those measuring greater than 1 mT.[1]

Types of magnetometer

The Magnetometer experiment for the Juno orbiter for Juno can be seen here on the end of a boom. The spacecraft uses two fluxgate magnetometers. (see also Magnetometer (Juno))

There are two basic types of magnetometer measurement. Vector magnetometers measure the vector components of a magnetic field. Total field magnetometers or scalar magnetometers measure the magnitude of the vector magnetic field.[4] Magnetometers used to study the Earth's magnetic field may express the vector components of the field in terms of declination (the angle between the horizontal component of the field vector and magnetic north) and the inclination (the angle between the field vector and the horizontal surface).[5]

Absolute magnetometers measure the absolute magnitude or vector magnetic field, using an internal calibration or known physical constants of the magnetic sensor.[6] Relative magnetometers measure magnitude or vector magnetic field relative to a fixed but uncalibrated baseline. Also called variometers, relative magnetometers are used to measure variations in magnetic field.

Magnetometers may also be classified by their situation or intended use. Stationary magnetometers are installed to a fixed position and measurements are taken while the magnetometer is stationary.[4] Portable or mobile magnetometers are meant to be used while in motion and may be manually carried or transported in a moving vehicle. Laboratory magnetometers are used to measure the magnetic field of materials placed within them and are typically stationary. Survey magnetometers are used to measure magnetic fields in geomagnetic surveys; they may be fixed base stations, as in the INTERMAGNET network, or mobile magnetometers used to scan a geographic region.

Performance and capabilities

The performance and capabilities of magnetometers are described through their technical specifications. Major specifications include[1][3]

  • Sample rate is the amount of readings given per second. The inverse is the cycle time in seconds per reading. Sample rate is important in mobile magnetometers; the sample rate and the vehicle speed determine the distance between measurements.
  • Bandwidth or bandpass characterizes how well a magnetometer tracks rapid changes in magnetic field. For magnetometers with no onboard signal processing, bandwidth is determined by the Nyquist limit set by sample rate. Modern magnetometers may perform smoothing or averaging over sequential samples. achieving a lower noise in exchange for lower bandwidth.
  • Resolution is the smallest change in a magnetic field the magnetometer can resolve. A magnetometer should have a resolution a good deal smaller than the smallest change one wishes to observe.
  • Quantization error is caused by recording roundoff and truncation of digital expressions of the data.
  • Absolute error is the difference between the readings of a magnetometer true magnetic field.
  • Drift is the change in absolute error over time.
  • Thermal stability is the dependence of the measurement on temperature. It is given as a temperature coefficient in units of nT per degree Celsius.
  • Noise is the random fluctuations generated by the magnetometer sensor or electronics. Noise is given in units of , where frequency component refers to the bandwidth.
  • Sensitivity is the larger of the noise or the resolution.
  • Heading error is the change in the measurement due to a change in orientation of the instrument in a constant magnetic field.
  • The dead zone is the angular region of magnetometer orientation in which the instrument produces poor or no measurements. All optically pumped, proton-free precession, and Overhauser magnetometers experience some dead zone effects.
  • Gradient tolerance is the ability of a magnetometer to obtain a reliable measurement in the presence of a magnetic field gradient. In surveys of unexploded ordnance or landfills, gradients can be large.

Early magnetometers

The compass is a simple type of magnetometer.
Coast and Geodetic Survey Magnetometer No. 18.

The compass, consisting of a magnetized needle whose orientation changes in response to the ambient magnetic field, is a simple type of magnetometer, one that measures the direction of the field. The oscillation frequency of a magnetized needle is proportional to the square-root of the strength of the ambient magnetic field; so, for example, the oscillation frequency of the needle of a horizontally situated compass is proportional to the square-root of the horizontal intensity of the ambient field.

In 1833, Carl Friedrich Gauss, head of the Geomagnetic Observatory in Göttingen, published a paper on measurement of the Earth's magnetic field.[7] It described a new instrument that consisted of a permanent bar magnet suspended horizontally from a gold fibre. The difference in the oscillations when the bar was magnetised and when it was demagnetised allowed Gauss to calculate an absolute value for the strength of the Earth's magnetic field.[8]

The gauss, the CGS unit of magnetic flux density was named in his honour, defined as one maxwell per square centimeter; it equals 1×10−4 tesla (the SI unit).[9]

Francis Ronalds and Charles Brooke independently invented magnetographs in 1846 that continuously recorded the magnet’s movements using photography, thus easing the load on observers.[10] They were quickly utilised by Edward Sabine and others in a global magnetic survey and updated machines were in use well into the 20th century.[11][12]

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