Let’s build an Orbital Volcanic Observatory!

There is a strong argument that can be made that Earth scientists – particularly geologists in particular – are not good at thinking “big”. That’s not to say we don’t have fascinating questions to answer or exciting areas of research. On the contrary, geologists’ projects tend to be much smaller than what astronomers and physicists suggest.

It is only recently that geologists have started to explore the exploration of prominent objects in space, and generally these objects visit other planets in search of life. Well, maybe it’s time we started thinking about how we can learn more about our planet from space in a way that can capture the imagination of the public.

Earth sciences from space are really new. Since the start of the Landsat program, we have put more and more Earth observation satellites into space. Some of them are big and fancy like the recently launched Landsat 9. Others are small enough to carry with you, such as Planet Dove Satellites. We have also launched climatic and geophysical surveyors, such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 or the twin Gravity recovery and climate experience (GRACE) satellites. All of these missions (and more) have collected a treasure trove of scientific data from Earth to allow us to learn more about the planet.

See the heat

Infrared imagery is essential for monitoring orbital volcanoes. As the magma rises to the surface, you get a lot of heat with it. This heat can manifest itself in the form of molten rock (lava!) Or in the emissions of a volcano – steam and ash. Most Earth Observation Satellites (EOS) like Terra, Aqua, Sentinel-2, Landsat series and many others have infrared capabilities, but they run into two problems to be really useful for detailed observations of volcanoes: they do not observe the volcano frequently enough (weather) and cannot observe them in enough detail (resolution).

A recent article in the Volcanology Bulletin by Michael Ramsey et al. argues that our current aging fleet of Earth observation satellites is not up to the task of being volcanic orbital observatories. Worse yet, there hasn’t been a lot of work on how we can improve infrared imaging from space to meet the needs of vulcanologists. So while we can take daily images from almost any location on the planet, the actual data that vulcanologists might need to monitor and forecast the activity of volcanoes – namely, detailed and timely infrared – does ‘just don’t exist.

Ramsey, based on discussions within the volcanology community, believes that the ideal observation of an orbital volcano (which I’ll name WASH: Looking At Volcanic Activity) would have a number of key characteristics. First, it should be in a polar orbit, similar to what many of our weather and Earth observation satellites already use. This allows global coverage of all major volcanic regions.

The ideal orbiter

The other two vital criteria are the realms of time and space. A dedicated LAVA orbiter would hopefully allow repeated sightings of the same volcano potentially at least daily, but even better would be multiple times a day. It might require multiple orbiters to achieve this kind of temporal resolution – even the best of our Earth observation satellites have daily coverage while others might only take a photo of the same locations once every. a few weeks. These types of durations can provide information, but volcanic crises can unfold in days or even hours.

As for the spatial resolution, the WASH The orbiter should ideally offer an infrared image resolution of less than 100 meters, and ideally closer to a meter. This could allow volcanologists to discern what’s going on in volcanic craters or lava flow fields in much more detail than we currently can. You also need your imager not to be saturated with infrared energy from sources like lava which can reach over 1250 ° C (2200 ° F).

Even the time of day matters – Ramsey suggests that any orbiter should be programmed to make its passes over volcanic regions in the morning so that cloud cover and solar heating are minimal, allowing for the best infrared imagery. None of the current or future Earth observation missions use this schedule.

In summary, although we have many satellites that circle our planet and take pictures of the Earth, none are ideally set to keep an eye on volcanoes. Of course, we can capture images when the eruption has started if the right satellite is in the right place, but often times it’s just luck. the WASH The orbiter, with frequent coverage, high spatial resolution, and the right infrared imaging technology, could be a boon to monitoring volcanoes across the planet.

What is it going to cost you?

Of course, the biggest problem beyond technological development is the cost. The Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite pair, launched by ESA, cost around $ 200 million each. A large satellite dedicated to the observation of the Earth as Landsat-9 cost $ 750 million. The Terra satellite mission, launched in 1999, costs just over $ 1 billion. Of course, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope Approaches $ 10 Billion. All of these are probably a bit more expensive than the LAVA Orbiter could be. At the other end of the spectrum, Cost of Planet’s Dove mini-satellites in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So maybe we could imagine a WASH orbiter between 300 and 500 million dollars. That still seems like a lot … but considering the cost of recent volcanic disasters, such as the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo ($ 800 million), Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 ($ 4 billion) or the Eruption of Kilauea in 2018 ($ 800 million), you can see how quickly the damage builds up. By making it easier to monitor and predict eruptions, the LAVA Orbiter could pay for itself quickly over its potential lifespan of 10 to 20 years.

At the end of the day, it’s a question of who and how. While organizations like the US Geological Survey, Japan Meteorological Agency, Icelandic Meteorological Office, SERNAGEOMIN (Chilean Geological Survey) and many more work together, something like the WASH the orbiter could be a reality. Earth scientists only have to dream “big” to support such an orbiting observatory, an ideal next step in understanding how the volcanoes of our planet work.

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