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A magnetometer is a scientific instrument used to measure the strength and/or direction of the magnetic field in the vicinity of the instrument. Magnetism varies from place to place and differences in Earth's magnetic field (the magnetosphere) can be caused by the differing nature of rocks and the interaction between charged particles from the Sun and the magnetosphere of a planet. Magnetometers are often a frequent component instrument on spacecraft that explore planets.


Magnetometers are used in ground-based electromagnetic geophysical surveys (such as magnetotellurics) to assist with detecting mineralization and corresponding geological structures. Airborne geophysical surveys use magnetometers that can detect magnetic field variations caused by mineralization, using airplanes like the Shrike Commander. Magnetometers are also used to detect archaeological sites, shipwrecks and other buried or submerged objects, and in metal detectors to detect metal objects, such as guns in security screening. Magnetic anomaly detectors detect submarines for military purposes.

They are used in directional drilling for oil or gas to detect the azimuth of the drilling tools near the drill bit. They are most often paired up with accelerometers in drilling tools so that both the inclination and azimuth of the drill bit can be found.

Magnetometers are very sensitive, and can give an indication of possible auroral activity before one can see the light from the aurora. A grid of magnetometers around the world constantly measures the effect of the solar wind on the Earth's magnetic field, which is published on the K-index.

A three-axis fluxgate magnetometer was part of the Mariner 2 and Mariner 10 missions. A dual technique Magnetometer is part of the Cassini-Huygens mission to explore Saturn. This system is composed of a vector helium and fluxgate magnetometer. Magnetometers are also a component instrument on the Mercury MESSENGER mission. A magnetometer can also be used by satellites like GOES to measure both the magnitude and direction of a planet's or moon's magnetic field.


Magnetometers can be divided into two basic types:
  • Scalar magnetometers measure the total strength of the magnetic field to which they are subjected, and
  • Vector magnetometers have the capability to measure the component of the magnetic field in a particular direction, relative to the spatial orientation of the device.

The use of three orthogonal vector magnetometers allows the magnetic field strength, inclination and declination to be uniquely defined. Examples of vector magnetometers are fluxgates, superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), and the atomic SERF magnetometer. Some scalar magnetometers are discussed below.

A magnetograph is a special magnetometer that continuously records data.

Rotating coil magnetometer

The magnetic field induces a sine wave in a rotating coil. The amplitude of the signal is proportional to the strength of the field, provided it is uniform, and to the sine of the angle between the rotation axis of the coil and the field lines. This type of magnetometer is obsolete.

Hall effect magnetometer

The most common magnetic sensing devices are solid-state Hall effect sensors. These sensors produce a voltage proportional to the applied magnetic field and also sense polarity.

Proton precession magnetometer

Proton precession magnetometers, also known as proton magnetometers, measure the resonance frequency of protons (hydrogen nuclei) in the magnetic field to be measured, due to Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). Because the precession frequency depends only on atomic constants and the strength of the ambient magnetic field, the accuracy of this type of magnetometer is very good. They are widely used.

A direct current flowing in an inductor creates a strong magnetic field around a hydrogen-rich fluid, causing some of the protons to align themselves with that field. The current is then interrupted, and as protons realign themselves with ambient magnetic field, they precess at a frequency that is directly proportional to the magnetic field. This produces a weak alternating magnetic field that is picked up by a (sometimes separate) inductor, amplified electronically, and fed to a digital frequency counter whose output is typically scaled and displayed directly as field strength or output as digital data.

The relationship between the frequency of the induced current and the strength of the magnetic field is called the proton gyromagnetic ratio, and is equal to 0.042576 hertz per nanotesla (Hz/nT).

These magnetometers can be moderately sensitive if several tens of watts are available to power the aligning process. Measuring once per second, standard deviations in the readings in the 0.01 nT to 0.1 nT range can be obtained.Variations of about 0.1 nT can be detected.

The two main sources of measurement errors are magnetic impurities in the sensor and errors in the measurement of the frequency.

The Earth's magnetic field varies with time, geographical location, and local magnetic anomalies.The frequency of Earth's field NMR (EFNMR) for protons varies between approximately 1.5 kHz near the equator to 2.5 kHz near the geomagnetic poles. Typical short-term magnetic field variations at a particular location during Earth's daily rotation is about 25nT (i.e. about 1 part in 2,000), with variations over a few seconds of typically around 1nT (i.e. about 1 part in 50,000).

Apart from the direct measurement of the magnetic field on Earth or in space, these magnetometers prove to be useful to detect variations of magnetic field in space or in time (often referred to as magnetic anomalies), caused by submarines, skiers buried under snow, archaeological remains, and mineral deposits.


Magnetic gradiometers are in effect pairs of magnetometers (typically PPMs) with their search coils separated by a fixed distance (usually horizontally): the readings are compared in order to measure the differences between the sensed magnetic fields (i.e. field gradients caused by magnetic anomalies). This is one way of compensating both for the variability in time of the Earth's magnetic field and for other sources of electromagnetic interference, allowing more sensitive detection of anomalies.

Fluxgate magnetometer

A uniaxial fluxgate magnetometer

A fluxgate magnetometer consists of a small, magnetically susceptible, core wrapped by two coils of wire. An alternating electrical current is passed through one coil, driving the core through an alternating cycle of magnetic saturation, i.e., magnetised - unmagnetised - inversely magnetised - unmagnetised - magnetised. This constantly changing field induces an electrical current in the second coil, and this output current is measured by a detector. In a magnetically neutral background, the input and output currents will match. However, when the core is exposed to a background field, it will be more easily saturated in alignment with that field and less easily saturated in opposition to it. Hence the alternating magnetic field, and the induced output current, will be out of step with the input current. The extent to which this is the case will depend on the strength of the background magnetic field. Often, the current in the output coil is integrated, yielding an output analog voltage, proportional to the magnetic field.

Fluxgate magnetometers, paired in a gradiometer configuration, are commonly used for archaeological prospecting.

A wide variety of sensors are currently available and used to measure magnetic fields. Fluxgate magnetometers and gradiometers measure the direction and magnitude of magnetic fields. Fluxgates are affordable, rugged and compact. This, plus their typically low power consumption makes them ideal for a variety of sensing applications.

The typical fluxgate magnetometer consists of a "sense" (secondary) coil surrounding an inner "drive" (primary) coil that is wound around permeable core material. Each sensor has magnetic core elements that can be viewed as two carefully matched halves. An alternating current is applied to the drive winding, which drives the core into plus and minus saturation. The instantaneous drive current in each core half is driven in opposite polarity with respect to any external magnetic field. In the absence of any external magnetic field, the flux in one core half cancels that in the other and the total flux seen by the sense coil is zero. If an external magnetic field is now applied, it will, at a given instance in time, aid the flux in one core half and oppose flux in the other. This causes a net flux imbalance between the halves, so that they no longer cancel one another. Current pulses are now induced in the sense winding on every drive current phase reversal (or at the 2nd, and all even harmonics). This results in a signal that is dependent on both the external field magnitude and polarity.

There are additional factors that affect the size of the resultant signal. These factors include the number of turns in the sense winding, magnetic permeability of the core, sensor geometry and the gated flux rate of change with respect to time. Phase synchronous detection is used to convert these harmonic signals to a DC voltage proportional to the external magnetic field.

Fluxgate magnetometers were invented in the 1930s by Victor Vacquier at Gulf Research Laboratories; Vacquier applied them during World War II as an instrument for detecting submarines, and after the war confirmed the theory of plate tectonics by using them to measure shifts in the magnetic patterns on the sea floor.

Cesium vapor magnetometer

A basic example of the workings of a magnetometer may be given by discussing the common "optically pumped cesium vapor magnetometer" which is a highly sensitive (0.004 nT/√Hz) and accurate device used in a wide range of applications. Although it relies on some interesting quantum mechanics to operate, its basic principles are easily explained.

The device broadly consists of a photon emitter containing a cesium light emitter or lamp, an absorption chamber containing cesium vapor and a "buffer gas" through which the emitted photons pass, and a photon detector, arranged in that order.

Polarization:The basic principle that allows the device to operate is the fact that a cesium atom can exist in any of nine energy levels, which is the placement of electron atomic orbitals around the atomic nucleus. When a cesium atom within the chamber encounters a photon from the lamp, it jumps to a higher energy state and then re-emits a photon and falls to an indeterminate lower energy state. The cesium atom is 'sensitive' to the photons from the lamp in three of its nine energy states, and therefore eventually, assuming a closed system, all the atoms will fall into a state in which all the photons from the lamp will pass through unhindered and be measured by the photon detector. At this point the sample (or population) is said to be polarized and ready for measurement to take place. This process is done continuously during operation.

Detection:Given that this theoretically perfect magnetometer is now functional, it can now begin to make measurements.

In the most common type of cesium magnetometer, a very small AC magnetic field is applied to the cell. Since the difference in the energy levels of the electrons is determined by the external magnetic field, there is a frequency at which this small AC field will cause the electrons to change states. In this new state, the electron will once again be able to absorb a photon of light. This causes a signal on a photo detector that measures the light passing through the cell. The associated electronics uses this fact to create a signal exactly at the frequency which corresponds to the external field.

Another type of cesium magnetometer modulates the light applied to the cell. This is referred a Bell–Bloom magnetometer after the two scientists who first investigated the effect. If the light is turned on and off at the frequency corresponding to the Earth's field, there is a change in the signal seen at the photo detector. Again, the associated electronics uses this to create a signal exactly at the frequency which corresponds to the external field.

Both methods lead to high performance magnetometers.

Applications :The cesium magnetometer is typically used where a higher performance magnetometer than the proton magnetometer is needed. In archaeology and geophysics, where the sensor is moved through an area and many accurate magnetic field measurements are needed, the cesium magnetometer has advantages over the proton magnetometer.

The cesium magnetometer's faster measurement rate allow the sensor to be moved through the area more quickly for a given number of data points.

The lower noise of the cesium magnetometer allows those measurements to more accurately show the variations in the field with position.

Spin-exchange relaxation-free (SERF) atomic magnetometers

At sufficiently high atomic density, extremely high sensitivity can be achieved. Spin-exchange-relaxation-free (SERF) atomic magnetometers containing potassium, cesium or rubidium vapor operate similarly to the cesium magnetometers described above yet can reach sensitivities lower than 1 fT/√Hz.

The SERF magnetometers only operate in small magnetic fields. The Earth's field is about 50 µT. SERF magnetometers operate in fields less than 0.5 µT.

As shown in large volume detectors have achieved 200 aT/√Hz sensitivity. This technology has greater sensitivity per unit volume than SQUID detectors.

The technology can also produce very small magnetometers that may in the future replace coils for detecting changing magnetic fields.

Rapid developments are ongoing in this area. This technology may produce a magnetic sensor that has all of its input and output signals in the form of light on fiberoptic cables. This would allow the magnetic measurement to be made in places where high electrical voltages exist.

SQUID magnetometer

SQUIDs, or superconducting quantum interference devices, measure extremely small magnetic fields; they are very sensitive vector magnetometers, with noise levels as low as 3 fT·Hz−0.5 in commercial instruments and 0.4 fT·Hz−0.5 in experimental devices. Many liquid-helium-cooled commercial SQUIDs achieve a flat noise spectrum from near DC (less than 1 Hz) to tens of kiloHertz, making such devices ideal for time-domain biomagnetic signal measurements. SERF atomic magnetometer demonstrated in a laboratory so far reaches competitive noise floor but in relatively small frequency ranges.

SQUID magnetometers require cooling with liquid helium (4.2 K) or liquid nitrogen (77 K) to operate, hence the packaging requirements to use them are rather stringent both from a thermal-mechanical as well as magnetic standpoint. SQUID magnetometers are most commonly used to measure the magnetic fields produced by brain or heart activity (magnetoencephalography and magnetocardiography, respectively). Geophysical surveys use SQUIDS from time to time, but the logistics is much more complicated than coil-based magnetometers.

Early magnetometers

In 1833 Carl Friedrich Gauss, head of the Geomagnetic Observatory in Göttingen, published a paper on measurement of the Earth's magnetic field. It described a new instrument that Gauss called a "magnometer" (a term which is still occasionally used instead of magnetometer). It consisted of a permanent bar magnet suspended horizontally from a gold fibre. A magnetometer may also be called a gaussmeter.

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