A new NASA tool could help predict volcanic eruptions

NASA is launching a prototype instrument that could make it easier to monitor volcanic activity and air quality. Perched aboard a CubeSat approximately 480 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the “Nanosat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System”, or NACHOS, will use a compact hyperspectral imager to locate gas sources indicative of volcanic activity in small areas of about 0.4 square kilometers. NACHOS is part of Northrop Grumman’s 17th refueling mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.

If successful, NACHOS will be the smallest, high-resolution space instrument dedicated to monitoring atmospheric trace gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide, paving the way for future Earth observation systems that not only they will help predict volcanic eruptions, but they will also monitor the air quality around cities, neighborhoods, and even individual power plants.

“A dormant volcano that is just waking up can emit SO2 before there is detectable seismic activity. This gives us the ability to identify a potentially erupting volcano before it actually explodes, ”explained Steve Love, researcher and task center manager with the Space and Remote Sensing Group at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). .

Atmospheric trace gases from natural and man-made sources provide scientists with unique information about a wide variety of earth systems. For example, nitrogen dioxide, often produced by burning fossil fuels, has a negative impact on human health and can act as a tracer for carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change) that results from human activity.

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But trace gas monitoring requires sensitive enough tools to collect high-resolution data; traditionally, this meant creating larger satellites with a full suite of powerful sensors. “There are excellent instruments in orbit that collect atmospheric trace gas data, but they are expensive to produce and maintain. If we are to expand this scientific capacity, we will need a cheaper solution, ”said Love.

At only 6 kilograms and 300 cubic centimeters, NACHOS can be the solution. In addition to an ultra-compact hyperspectral imager capable of collecting high-resolution data, NACHOS also uses built-in processing algorithms, which reduce both the size of its data transmissions and the amount of time it takes to transmit that data to Earth.

These algorithms work particularly well on small computers, giving NACHOS large amounts of computational power without increasing the size or weight of the instrument. “More power and less weight distinguish NACHOS and make it a great candidate for future missions” in search of trace gas from the atmosphere explained Love.

NACHOS will remain aboard Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft until May 2022, when the spacecraft departs from the International Space Station and places NACHOS in low Earth orbit before the cargo spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Love expects NACHOS to remain in orbit for about a year.

“This will give us enough time to verify our instrument design and collect enough test data to ensure our technology concept is viable,” said Love. A second NACHOS instrument will head into low Earth orbit in the winter of 2022 as part of the US Department of Defense space test program. The prototype is funded through the InVEST program at NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office.