Nanosat Constellation Could Help to Predict Earthquakes

The San Francisco Mission District burning in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

With the terrible devastation caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, there is renewed interest in whether earthquakes could ever be accurately predicted in advance so that those in the affected in areas could evacuate and prepare properly.

The Russians are pursuing just such an initiative under its IGMASS initiative. The International Global Natural and Industrial Emergency Aerospace Monitoring System is designed to detect natural disaster precursors through the development of dedicated space, air and ground systems.

A key element of IGMASS is a constellation of nanosats that could detect subtle electromagnetic signals that appear in the atmosphere prior to earthquakes. Such signals were detected by satellites prior to the Haitian quake, but they were not analyzed until after the disaster struck.

A first step in developing the system is TwinSat, a joint Russian-British project that would fly two satellites in formation to monitor for signals. I emailed the project’s British lead, Prof. Alan Smith, who is Director of the
Mullard Space Science Laboratory at the University College London, for more information. His replies below:

Smith: Basically we’re not offering an ‘early warning’ system but a mission that would be a step towards that. An early warning system would be premature at this time – we need to understand better the correlations that we see and better separate seismic-related signals from other sources.

Q. How advanced are these prototype nanosats? Are they prototypes to test the concept?

Smith: Nanosats or CubeSats (as they are sometimes called – there is a distinction but not really worth bothering with here) are becoming commonplace. While they have mostly been built by students etc as education projects, they are proven technology and companies happily sell the various parts. Of course the sensors are special. We plan to fly the sensors associated with TwinSat on the approved UK TechDemoSat later this year.

Q. How much of the planet could two nanosats cover?

Smith: It’s one nanosat (UK) and one microsat (Russia). They would cover the whole earth every 5 days. (except the poles but that’s not a problem of course).

Q. Would you need more satellites to provide global coverage?

Smith: We would need more if you wanted <1 day warning, say 5 pairs.

Q. How much warning could these give prior to an earthquake or volcanic eruption?

Smith: Up to 10 days looks feasible from the data we’ve seen but not all earthquakes are the same and that’s one of the reasons we need to fly TwinSat – we’re also worried about false alarms.

Q. How accurate would they be in terms of location and timing?

Smith: To be decided. It would probably alert an earthquake region rather than a place, say 100km diameter but that number is uncertain.

Q. Anything else you think is important?

Smith: Just to reiterate it’s a next step. The mission would be quite inexpensive (£10m ish) and given the cost surely its worth a shot. Kobe alone cost Japan $100b, who knows what this one will have cost.

Launching five sets of nano-sats to cover the globe would be trivial in cost. The real challenge involves the accuracy of the sensors and the algorithms needed to evaluate the data. The other question is what sorts of systems are required on the ground and the air they would need to provide accurate ground truth. And making sure the data are evaluated in a timely and accurate fashion.

Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov pitched IGMASS last year to a gathering of space agency chiefs in Washington. A Russian delegation recently visited Beijing to begin collaboration on it with the Chinese government. Additional discussions will likely take place in April when world space leaders gather in Moscow for the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin. Perminov has scheduled bi-lateral talks with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on a number of cooperative projects.

My guess is that after the Japanese quake, there will be heightened interest in the IGMASS initiative.