Mar 16, 2011

Satellite system could provide earlier earthquake warnings

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British and Russian scientists are planning a satellite system that will monitor seismic activity from space in the hope of one day predicting the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The TwinSat project will put one micro-sized and one nano-sized satellite into low earth orbit some 400km apart, which will work in unison to collect and interpret electromagnetic signatures from the ground. Geologists have known for some time that as stress builds up in the earth prior to an earthquake, subtle electromagnetic signals are released. However, present methods for collecting and analysing seismic-related electromagnetic emissions are too crude and not sensitive enough to be of any real predictive value, as project researcher Dr Dhiren Kataria of University College London explained.

‘The key thing that this project could add is a sense of time. You can easily say strain is increasing in an earthquake-prone area, but there’s no real indication when the earthquake may go. By measuring an additional parameter it gives you a better chance to do that,’ said Prof Peter Sammonds, a geophysicist from UCL who is working on the project.

Currently the best earthquake systems, most of them in Japan, are based on measuring crystal strain in rocks and can give around three minutes of advance warning. In theory, a satellite detection system could offer far better preparation time and be useful for less-developed nations such as Haiti. ‘The exciting thing about nano-satellite technology is it’s incredibly cheap. To make it really predictive you would have to have many more satellites to create a far larger coverage,’ Sammonds said.

Published by: the Engineer on February 22, 2011
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