Experimental Thinking with Magnitude.io

Maker News Science Space
Experimental Thinking with Magnitude.io

Ambition, tenacity, and a little moxie will get you far as a maker. Space exploration needs that spirit, along with a high level of rigor and discipline. Seeing an opportunity in 2013, I got together with my longtime friend Tony So to launch Magnitude.io to increase accessibility to space by “orders of magnitude,” while greatly reducing costs. We did this just after the state of California announced the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which would integrate science and engineering practice. Nearly two-thirds of students in the United States are implementing standards influenced by NGSS. At Magnitude, we believe that these new standards are fertile ground for authentic research and exploration in learning environments like public schools.

A Lodi Unified high-altitude balloon [HAB] 22 miles above the California coast

Magnitude’s prime objective is to integrate science and engineering to create authentic learning experiences. Leading with the investigation of science phenomena, we ease into engineering later. This differentiation has helped tremendously as some teachers are confident in physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics but apprehensive about engineering in a classroom setting. Working with talented people and organizations in their given fields of expertise has allowed us to stay creative and to explore the many exciting ways to engage students through the awe and wonder of space.


Students from Lodi Unified prepare to release their high-altitude balloon.

A pair of experiments

We currently have two projects running on the Magnitude Learning Platform. One is CanSat, a simulated satellite that can be launched in high-powered rockets (HPR) or high-altitude balloons (HAB). The other is ExoLab, a network of devices on Earth connected to the International Space Station. Last year we received the 2018 ISS Innovation in Education award for our
novel approach to create a network of experiment devices connected to the ISS. Our sixth mission is scheduled to launch aboard the SpaceX-18 resupply mission in July 2019 where we will investigate nitrogen fixing bacteria (Rhizobium leguminosarum)
in microgravity.

Space isn’t simple, and our first missions were not successful. We started by collaborating with a start-up satellite company that was unable to get their satellites to operate in orbit. After three failed attempts we thought it better to move forward with our own engineering. We wanted to fulfill our promise of providing every student access to an extraordinary experience.

With any maker project, the community is power. Less than a year into the creation of Magnitude, we met Stanford professor emeritus Bob Twiggs, co-inventor of the modern CubeSat, and shortly thereafter were introduced to space systems engineer Twyman Clements, now CEO of Space Tango. With these collaborators, we developed CanSat and ExoLab.


Before CubeSats were invented, Professor Twiggs and his Stanford students built simulated satellites in the volume of a 12-ounce soda can in order to understand the systems required and to significantly reduce the time, cost, and complexity of satellites. These CanSats were launched in rockets and deployed at apogee. Descending under parachute, their hang time was similar to a horizon-to-horizon pass of a satellite in orbit. CanSats are a global phenomenon; in Europe there’s an annual competition for high schoolers.

The CanSats we’ve designed are shields built for the Arduino Uno. Breakouts on our custom shield enable us to extend sensor measurements beyond our base sensors (barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, acceleration, magnetic fields, lux, and GPS), to include gas measurements, particulates, even radiation.

We have run dozens of CanSat missions with students across the United States. Some samples:

Atlas Space Explorers is a Scouts BSA organization in Traverse City, Michigan, that is learning about the complexities of engineering real-time communication between the spacecraft and the ground. Working in an FAA-approved flight range, their HAB will fly a CanSat to act as a simulated satellite to track and send commands to a drone beyond line of sight. Their sponsor company is Atlas Space Operations, a company building the Freedom Ground Network across VHF, UHF, S-Band, and X-Band for missions beyond Earth.

ExoLab’s model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana

The WEX Foundation is a nonprofit based in San Antonio, Texas. Funded by a NASA Space Education Grant, WEX students are part of a program called LCATS (Lunar Caves Analog Test Site) in which they are researching a new quartz crystal microbalance (QCM) for use on the lunar surface. In its second year with Magnitude, WEX will be flying tests with CanSat and QCM in both HPR and HAB missions later this spring.

Studdents from Russell Independent School District, Kentucky, with their ExoLab

Schools across the country use CanSat to investigate the world around them. In Northern California the school districts of Lodi, Manteca, and Stockton actively launch HABs and HPRs, while in San Leandro students have extended the work with CanSat to build an air quality monitor and have received two Regional Air District grants so far to continue their work!

The CanSat was an inspiration for the modern satellite, the CubeSat. The CubeSat in turn was the inspiration for the cube-sized laboratories like ExoLab which are currently installed aboard the International Space Station. These cube systems are essentially intermodal freight transportation for space. A 40′-long shipping container can be sent anywhere in the world because of standard sizes and equipment to handle them. In space, the equivalent of shipping containers are these 10cm (4″) cubes weighing in at 1.33kg (about 3 pounds).


Our ExoLab project dramatically reduces the cost and complexity of running an experiment in space. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars we are now looking at hundreds of dollars.

Based on the Raspberry Pi, ExoLab is an IoT device that takes a picture of the project every hour and shares ambient information of the experiment underway (CO2 level, temperature, humidity, light level). This information is connected with other classrooms around the world — all of which are connected to an ExoLab aboard the ISS. The first six missions have all been biological. As we reach out to other educators and groups we will explore adding sensors via the front I2C port.

Some Magnitude.io collaborations:

The Lodi Unified School District in California has enabled their primary school libraries with ExoLab along with a live view of Earth from the ISS . Their unique approach encourages reading and writing by
tapping into kids’ interest in space exploration and science. Librarians
curate books and even set up question boxes for young students to ask any questions they have about space. One of my favorites so far has been: “How far can a bunny jump on the moon?” We’re excited by the groundbreaking work this district is doing with ExoLab. As of this writing the entire district is contemplating what unique science investigation they would like to run aboard the ISS in 2020!

Intern Matthew Young readies plant experiments

I-Innovate works with students throughout South Africa to explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills alongside essential 21st-century skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and computational science.

Some teachers really step up to the challenge. Michael Wilkinson is a math and science teacher from the Bronx who has brought his fourth-grade students deeply into the ExoLab experience. He brings so much knowledge and enthusiasm to learning, he has become the principal investigator (PI) for our next mission to the ISS. In addition to this, he is actively developing a cadre of teachers who are passionate about space for upcoming experiments.

Studdents from Cape Academy prepare their ExoLab

Our first partner in Europe is CodeDoor.Founded in 2015 to teach untapped groups employable skills in coding, they now work with global companies to train their employees. This summer we are excited to collaborate with Codedoor and the Media Centers in Central Hesse to bring high schools onto the ExoLab platform from the Mittelhessen region of Germany where they will learn about the platform and develop their own unique experiment for German students. After the initial project we will scale nationwide in Germany.

Rour-plant germination study aboard CRS-15 [SpaceX-15]: amaranth, pak choy, purslaane, and wasabi.
Moving Forward

Big news: Magnitude.io has just been included in the Astrobee Guest Scientist program (see page 26). We are collaborating with gas sensor company Spec Sensors and engineering firm KWJ Engineering, both in Newark, California, to build an electrochemical sensor array — like a digital nose for the free-flying robot, monitoring the cabin air aboard the ISS. Similar instruments will be available for schools to measure indoor air quality when the project launches in 2020.

Beyond that, we have some interesting projects in development. How about a lunar mission for students within 5 years? Or perhaps a greenhouse on Mars? Being able to tie into link and power budgets on larger missions, we’re playfully using a hashtag for the deep space missions: #WeJustNeed1kg.

Getting back to Earth, one amazing phenomenon that astronauts have expressed is what’s called the overview effect. This cognitive shift in awareness of seeing our planet hanging in the infinite darkness has made some acutely aware of how precious our world really is. While we are deeply passionate about space exploration, there is still so much to discover here on our beautiful planet. To that point, our web-based platform for learning will be opening up other research and exploration opportunities right here on Earth. Stay tuned!


Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!
Ted Tagami

is CEO and co-founder of Magnitude.io.

View more articles by Ted Tagami
Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).