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Tiny nanosat aims to spot volcanic eruptions from space before they happen

NOAA's GOES West satellite captured this stunning view of an explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, located in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, on Jan. 15, 2022.
NOAA's GOES West satellite captured this stunning view of an explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, located in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, on Jan. 15, 2022. (Image credit: NOAA)

A new sensor aims to send information about volcanic activity and air quality from a tiny satellite as swiftly as possible, to help speed up the response to eruptions.

The Nanosat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System, or NACHOS, will fly roughly 300 miles (480 kilometers) in altitude above Earth, scanning the ground using a hyperspectral imager.

NACHOS flew to space on the 17th Cygnus cargo resupply mission that arrived at the International Space Station Monday (Feb. 21); the satellite will be deployed in late May as Cygnus departs the orbiting complex.

Related: 10 incredible volcanoes in our solar system

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying the uncrewed cargo ship Cygnus NG-17 lifts off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia on Feb. 19, 2022, to deliver 8,300 pounds (3,800 kg) of supplies to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Once operational, the tiny satellite should be able to pick up gases in regions as small as 0.15 square miles (0.4 square km), roughly the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota. NACHOS will thus be the smallest and highest-resolution instrument looking for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other gases associated with volcanoes.

If all goes well, NACHOS could herald future Earth-observing systems tasked with looking for air quality changes in small regions including cities, neighborhoods or power plants, NASA said in a statement (opens in new tab) Saturday (Feb. 19).

NACHOS will add on to decades of research in seeking atmospheric trace gases from orbit to serve as proxies for natural or human activity. Nitrogen dioxide, NASA said as an example, is a common product of fossil fuel burning and also serves as a trace gas for carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

But in the shorter term, scientists say that NACHOS will help serve as an early warning system ahead of major volcanic eruptions; this year alone has already seen emissions from Mount Etna and a world-ringing explosion from Tonga.

"A dormant volcano just waking up may emit SO2 [sulfur dioxide] before there is any detectable seismic activity. That gives us a chance to identify a potentially erupting volcano before it actually blows," Steve Love, researcher and task lead with the space and remote sensing group at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in the NASA statement.

NACHOS will not only include an ultracompact hyperspectral imager, but it will also have algorithms to shrink its data transmissions and reduce the time it takes to send those transmissions back to Earth. This artificial intelligence capability will speed up the ability of decision-makers to act on erupting volcanoes, the science team says.

The tiny satellite is designed to work in orbit for one year after its May 2022 deployment. A second NACHOS instrument will go to low-Earth orbit this year as part of the U.S. Department of Defense's Space Test Program, NASA said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.