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Nano-satellite scheme to predict natural disasters

by at 18/02/2011 14:49


It’s barely 20cm across, it weighs about 2 kg – and it could be the first step towards a breakthrough in predicting natural disasters.

A revolutionary nano-satellite could become the rising star of Russia’s space programme, developed in conjunction with British scientists to test the physics behind a potentially life-saving scheme.

The joint effort involving Russia’s Institute of Physics of the Earth and London’s Mullard Space Centre Laboratory hopes to develop a workable system to detect the electro-magnetic impulses which precede volcanic eruptions and earthquakes – and help timely evacuations.


The science part

Professor Vitaly Chmyrev, of the Russian institute, explained how it might become possible to predict future cataclysms.

“Nature warns us when big natural disasters are coming,” he said. “There are indicators days, weeks and sometimes even months before an earthquake or a volcanic eruption.

“If we can identify these signs, even though we can’t prevent an earthquake, we can try to predict what will happen and minimise the effects.”

The cosmic part of this project involves a new TwinSat programme, with a nano-satellite developed in the UK forming part of a monitoring system.

And that mini-machine, working in tandem with a parent satellite, will effectively open a “second eye” on the problem, greatly improving on the current rather haphazard orbital monitoring of geological hot spots Prof. Chmyrev told journalists at a briefing organised by Moscow’s International Science and Technology Center.

With the opportunity to home in on well-known seismic fault lines, the planned 2015 launch would enable scientists to test the theories behind their early-warning system and move a step closer to making reliable predictions of earthquakes and eruptions.


The potential problems

Earthquake experts fear that a major quake under a city such as Tehran or Istanbul could cause up to 1 million deaths, due to a combination of high population density and relatively low-grade building.

But before the project can produce a warning which might enable the authorities to intervene and save those lives, more work is required.

The electro-magnetic impulses from the Earth’s crust as tectonic stresses build up are similar to the electro-magnetic signals generated by large cities – including those located on fault lines.

“We don’t know yet how to distinguish between these,” admitted Professor Peter Salmon of UCL. “A more achievable goal at the moment would be predicting an earthquake without a mega city on top of it.”

Predictions of that sort could still save lives and limit the destruction caused by tremors, and Prof. Salmon told The Moscow News he is hopeful that the new satellite system could provide vital information from the skies which can be tested alongside earth-bound analysis to enhance the quality of quake warnings.


Space in miniature

With the key nano-satellite component measuring 10x10x20 cm and weighing just 2 kg, the cost of the mission comes down sharply.

Far from the $100 million price tags of old, the Russo-British joint project believes it can get into orbit for around $5 million.

And, as Prof. Salmon added, that changes the whole aerospace equation.

“Costs are coming down all the time and that is changing the game,” he said. “It’s a high risk project but it has a high potential return on very low costs.”

Meanwhile nano- and micro-satellites could, in their turn, revolutionise future space travel.

Professor Dhiren Kataria, also of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, explained that these are small enough to piggy-back onto planned launches of traditional satellites.

And once in space they can be used to service and support bigger orbiting modules or perform missions of their own.

“Already we can release them from bigger satellites into more complex orbits around the Earth,” Prof. Kataria said. “Now we are carrying out feasibility studies with industries looking at other practical applications as well as using them in space to correct the direction of satellites.”


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