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A fleet of balloons that sense earthquakes from the stratosphere

A fleet of balloons that sense earthquakes from the stratosphere


A balloon hangs over the mountains, waiting for waves of ultrasound generated by the earthquake. Here, these waves are visualized roughly by the gray dots. Credit: CNES/Rafael Garcia.

A new study published in AGU’s Geophysical Research Letters reports the first detection of a large, distant earthquake in a network of pressure sensors associated with balloons in the stratosphere. This technology could one day be applied to Venus, where its hot, dense and eroding atmosphere limits our ability to sense earthquakes from the planet’s surface. Balloons can also be used on the ground in hard-to-reach places.

Monitoring seismic activity on other planets is critical to learning about their internal structures, but unlike Earth, planetary scientists cannot rely on a global network of ground-based sensors. Instead, they turn to the atmosphere.

When an earthquake strikes, the shaking Earth sends ultrasound waves up the atmosphere, where balloons and their paraphernalia await. Balloons float through the stratosphere for several months after launch, passively following high-altitude atmospheric patterns. The balloons are approximately 11 meters and 30 kilograms (66 pounds) in diameter, and can support up to four gadgets.

Seismology is relatively new to the stratosphere. Balloons are mostly used for atmospheric sciences. Previous research has confirmed that these balloon-based sensors can pick up small local earthquakes, but so far, a multi-balloon network has yet to detect large earthquakes at a great distance.

On December 14, 2021, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian Sea of ​​Flores. Within 10 minutes, four of IASE’s Strateole-2 balloons within a 3,000-kilometre (1,860-mile) radius detected the resulting infrasound, at altitudes of up to 20 kilometers (12 miles). From these sensor data, the Garcia research team was able to accurately calculate the earthquake’s magnitude and many other key parameters about both the earthquake and planetary structure. They were even able to trace the dispersal of the seismic wave across the surface through their network.

“We are very pleased that it was not just one balloon that detected the earthquake, but that it was sensed on multiple balloons,” says Rafael Garcia, lead author of the new study and a planetary scientist at the Higher Institute of Space. et de l’Espace from the University of Toulouse.

The study is an important proof of concept for the application of seismic monitoring technology to Venus. While the balloons have only been tested in Earth’s atmosphere, Garcia and his colleagues think they will work in Venus’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere as well.

Lively Venus

In 2021, scientists studying Venus began referring to the next 10 years as the “decade of Venus,” as three missions to the planet were accepted in the early 2000s. Venus, Earth’s “sister planet”, is intriguing planetary scientists with its unknown internal structure and poorly understood long-range interactions between tectonics and the atmosphere that have ended up being a more habitable world than nearby Earth. “The story of our interest in Venus is that we don’t know anything about its interior,” Garcia says. “We don’t know how it’s made indoors and on the ground, seismology is one of the best tools for finding out.”

As part of the Venus nodes, several teams are working on balloon-based seismology, but the new study is the first to successfully capture large, natural earthquakes using multiple balloons, Garcia says.

“The research to detect a major earthquake on stratospheric balloons, is a bit competitive,” he says. “But it’s a good competition, because in the end, we’re working on showing the same concept.” However, he is pleased with their team that achieved this feat. The proposal for balloon-based seismic monitoring on Venus, called Phantom, will be submitted to the New Frontiers NASA missions in collaboration with JPL-NASA and North Carolina State University.

The network’s success also highlights the potential for balloon-based seismic monitoring to complement areas that are difficult to monitor with a ground-based grid, such as the sea floor. Balloons can also be deployed as a rapid response tool to monitor aftershocks.

NASA balloon reveals California earthquake next stop Venus? More information: Rafael F. Garcia et al., Infrasound of large earthquakes recorded on a network of balloons in the stratosphere, Geophysical Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022GL098844 Submitted by the American Geophysical Union

Quote: Balloon Fleet senses earthquakes from the stratosphere (2022, July 28) Retrieved on July 28, 2022 from

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