Predicting earthquakes from space

03.04.06

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti.) - A Russian strategic
nuclear-powered submarine is poised to launch an innovative, compact, 80-kg
spacecraft from the Barents Sea in the second quarter of this year.

The Compass 2 satellite is expected to help make the first step in the
practical forecasting of earthquakes from space.

The move comes as a result of extensive research into specific phenomena in
the Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere, often observed prior to
earthquakes, by the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio
Waves Propagation (IZMIRAN) of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The first observations of ionosphere anomalies manifested days before major
earthquakes date back to the 1960s. At first, treated no more seriously than
UFOs, palm reading and astrology, the findings elbowed their way into the
scientific domain in 1979 as the institute launched its Interkosmos 19
satellite. A recording analyzed after one major earthquake showed a
prolonged area (narrow in latitude and very broad in longitude) of abnormal,
low-frequency noise centered exactly above the earthquake's epicenter
several hours before the first shock was felt. Officially registered as a
scientific discovery, the phenomenon was later confirmed by findings from
other satellites.

This area of research received a powerful push in December 1988 in the wake
of a devastating earthquake in Armenia. A pool of Soviet scientific
institutions developed a forecasting system that was to be deployed first
onboard the Mir orbiter and then across the orbit within a network of
unmanned spacecraft. After the Mir, Salyut 6, and Salyut 7 completed the
early stages of the plan, the program was effectively buried with the demise
of the Soviet Union, but went forward at the end of the turbulent 1990s.

While other precursors of major earthquakes - the concentration of radon, an
inert gas, near the epicenter; the concentration of electrons in the
ionosphere above the epicenter; and the content of crust-emitted metal-rich
aerosols in the air, leading to an abnormally strong electric field there -
had been piling up for a long time, they were always obtained as by-products
of other research programs. Sufficient statistical data array required a
separate specialized satellite.

In 2001, the institute took the lead in the effort, committing to make a
satellite and inviting the Makeyev State Missile Center (Miass, Urals) to
convert the Shtil (SS-N-23 Skiff) military missile into a launch vehicle for
the project. Later, however, Makeyev also had to develop the satellite under
the effort codenamed Vulkan (Volcano) in the Russian Space Agency's
2001-2005 Federal Space Program.

The first international Complex Orbital Magneto-Plasma Autonomous Small
Satellite, or Compass, was orbited in December 2001 as a by-load together
with the Meteor 3M, a Russian weather satellite, to provide insight into
possible links between Earth's crust and magnetosphere behavior. This first
field test of an earthquake forecast assessment system largely failed
because, while early findings were very promising, the equipment developed
jointly by Russia, Hungary, Greece, Ukraine and Poland soon ceased to
operate.

Certain progress was made, however, as the data of Compass's launch mate,
Meteor 3M, were analyzed by special methods to obtain earthquake precursors.
On aggregate, 44 of 47 events registered between October 2002 and May 2003
agreed with data retrieved from land-based seismic records. The generally
positive result has led to the upcoming Compass 2 launch and is likely to
lead to a follow-up Compass 3 effort. The latter satellite is to be launched
in the fourth quarter of 2006 to test more modern and efficient monitoring
systems.

The International Space Station has also been long helping collect
ionosphere information. Thanks to the ISS's low orbit, some research
programs crucial for the future Vulkan disaster forecasting system have been
conducted here as part of a broader effort codenamed Uragan (Hurricane).

On the ground, the Vulkan will include a network of geophysical
laboratories, a downlink station and an analysis center. The ground
facilities lack the scope and access to recordable events, which explains
the need for an orbital component to yield a global survey of seismic
activity with accurately timed warnings (one to five days between a
precursor and a possible earthquake). All in all, two groups of small
satellites are to be deployed at 400-500- and 900-1,000-km solar synchronous
orbits.

When fully operational, the Vulkan's ground and spaceborne components will
collect, process and analyze the disaster precursor data, thus contributing
to medium-, long- and short-term plans of emergency management services in
Russia and internationally.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert with the Space Research Institute at the Russian
Academy of Sciences.