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NASA Goes Inside Volcano to Monitor activity and prepare for Mars
Scientists recently placed high-tech "spiders" inside and around the mouth of Mount
St. Helens, the most active volcano in the continental United States. Networks such
as these could one day be used to respond rapidly to an impending eruption.

    In mid-July, 2009, these spider pods were
    lowered by cable from a helicopter hovering
    about 100 feet up and gently put in hot spots
    inside and around the volcano crater.  "This
    project demonstrates that a low-cost sensor
    network system can support real-time
    monitoring in extremely challenging
    environments," said WenZhan Song of
    Washington State University Vancouver. Song
    is the principal investigator for this NASA-
    funded technology research project, which
    also draws on participation from the U.S.
    Geological Survey and from NASA's Jet
    Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 "Taking data from the ground onsite and from above by satellite gives you a great
picture of what is going on inside the volcano," said Steve Chien, principal scientist
for autonomous systems at JPL.    These robotic emissaries were built to go where
no human can and operate in extreme temperatures and treacherous terrain.
Fifteen pods form a virtual wireless network, communicating with each other and the
Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight
Center, in Greenbelt, Md.

Each pod contains a seismometer to detect earthquakes; a GPS receiver to
pinpoint the exact location and measure subtle ground deformation; an infrared
sounder to sense volcanic explosions; and a lightning detector to search for ash
cloud formation. The main instrument box is the size and shape of a microwave oven
and sits on top of a three-legged tripod, which is why scientists call them spiders.

    The pods are powered by
    batteries that can last for
    at least a year. Outfitted
    with precision GPS, motion-
    sensitive lead plates and
    pressure gauges, the
    $3,000 spiders both
    record and analyze the
    slumbering volcano’s
    movements and
    explosions. They even
    communicate with each
    other to determine what
    data is important enough
    to pass along.
Each machine runs on just 1 watt of power.  Information about multiple consecutive
tremors, rather than one isolated shift, for example, is sent to satellites, which then
relay the data to scientists.

      "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," said Rick LaHusen, an
    instrumentation engineer with the U.S.
    Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano
    Observatory, Vancouver, Wash.

After 1980's tremendous eruption at Mount St. Helens the volcano came back to life
in October 2004 and erupted more than 100 million cubic meters (26 billion gallons)
of lava, accompanied by a series of explosions that hurled rock and ash far from the
vent. If eruptions like these ever occur again, a sensor network could be quickly put
in place to provide valuable real-time information to scientists and emergency

"We hope this network will provide a blueprint for future networks to be installed on
many of the world's unmonitored active volcanoes, so educated and reliable
estimates can be made when a town or a village needs to be evacuated to reduce
the risk to life and property," said Project Manager Sharon Kedar of JPL.

The flight into the crater was the culmination of a 2-year, $2 million partnership
between the U.S. geological survey, Washington State University and NASA. The
space agency isn't so much interested in the volcanoes as the spiders, including
how they communicate with each other and satellites in space. Chien said, "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."         

This work is part of NASA's plan to develop a sensor web to provide timely data and
analyses for scientific research, natural hazard mitigation, and the exploration of
other planets in this solar system and beyond with Mars the most immediate
application.   Song said, "The design and deployment experiences will help us
understand challenging environments and inspire new discoveries."

A team of engineers, students, volcanologists and geologists put the system
together. The team includes the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano
Observatory staff, who designed and built the "spider" hardware; Washington State
University in Vancouver, where the sensor network software was written; and NASA,
which developed software to make the spiders able to detect events to trigger space
observations by the EO-1 satellite.     

( Sourced from AScribe Press Release)
NASA Mars Spiders descend on Volcano
Assembling Spiders at Cascade Volcano Observatory

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