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Predicting earthquakes from space

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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.

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