NASA Drops High-Tech Sensor Pods on Mt Saint Helens

They will offer early warnings for eruptions

Mount Saint Helen is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, and is very well known for its tendency to spit lava, ash and other pyroclastic flows from its crater. Being a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is constantly active, alongside another 160 similar volcanoes in the Cascade Volcanic Arc. As part of a NASA effort to study active volcanoes from the inside, the space agency recently dropped high-tech sensor pods over the mountain's crater, to get some scientific readings straight from the source, LiveScience informs.

These pods' main function will be to record and beam back hot spot formation and evolution, and to also offer early warnings for experts in the case of a potential eruption. The sensors were installed on July 14th, and officials at NASA say that they could give us a better understanding of the events that lead directly to a volcanic eruption, both on Earth and on other planets. Readings thus obtained could also be of use in understanding how molten rock moves underneath the Earth's crust.

“Hostile environments like Mount St. Helens are proving grounds for future space missions, such as to Mars, where we may someday have similar sensor networks to track a meteor strike, dust storm or Mars quake, as a virtual scientist on the ground,” explains the principal scientist for autonomous systems at the NASA-operated Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, Steve Chien. Experts from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) were also involved in the new project.

“With these high-tech instruments, we can rapidly respond during periods of volcanic unrest to supplement our permanent monitoring network or quickly replace damaged stations without excessive exposure to personnel,” adds USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory instrumentation engineer Rick LaHusen. About 15 such pods were airlifted over the crater, and then lowered from a helicopter at strategic locations, so that their efficiency is maximized. Among the most important science instruments on each of them, experts mention seismographs, GPS receivers, infrared sounders, and lightning detectors.

“This project demonstrates that a low-cost sensor network system can support real-time monitoring in extremely challenging environments,” concludes Washington State University researcher Wen Zhan Song, who is also the principle investigator of the new initiative.

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