NASA: the Tonga eruption has developed the highest plumes ever captured by satellite

NASA: the Tonga eruption has developed the highest plumes ever captured by satellite


According to NASA, the Tonga event was the largest volcanic eruption since satellites began monitoring our planet. As the Pacific volcano fired an explosion of ash and gas into the sky, with the force of about 10 megatons of TNT, two meteorological satellites were passing over it.

The GOES-17 spacecraft, from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and Himawari-8 of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, captured the eruption in the infrared every 10 minutes for about 13 hours.

NASA scientists analyzed satellite images noting that the explosion initial ash splashed 58 kilometers high, breaching the mesosphere, the region where meteorites falling to Earth burn and create shooting stars that crawl across the night sky.

It took about 30 minutes to volcanic plume to travel that high. Then a secondary plume rose over 50 kilometers. The top of those plumes turned to gas and dissipated almost immediately due to drought conditions in the mesosphere.

“The intensity of this event far exceeds that of any thunderstorm cloud that has never studied, ”said Kristopher Bedka, a NASA atmospheric scientist who specializes in extreme storms. “We are fortunate that it has been seen so well by our latest generation of geostationary satellites and we can use this data in innovative ways to document its evolution.”

Generic photos Before this, the largest known volcanic plume ever captured by satellites was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, according to NASA. That plume reached 35 kilometers above the Philippines, then into the stratosphere, but failed to reach the mesosphere.

The Tonga volcano was once completely underwater. It caught the attention of scientists in 2015, when it burst under the ocean and suddenly rose, creating a land mass that connected two pre-existing islands: Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai. Nearly a decade of low-level volcanic activity culminated in a series of violent eruptions in January, which wiped out the newborn island and carried away large chunks of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha'apai.

That land was uninhabited, but the eruption and the tsunami it triggered destroyed homes, boats and fishing on nearby populated islands and cut the undersea internet cable that keeps Tonga online. Three people died in the aftermath of the eruption. The World Bank estimates that the event caused $ 90.4 million in damage, 20% of Tonga's GDP.

To map the ash plume of the initial eruption, Bedka and his colleague from the NASA, Konstantin Khlopenkov, used the images of the two satellites, in the same way that our brain uses the images of our two eyes. They ran an algorithm that compared the satellite images and the different angles at which they were taken to build a 3D profile of the plume. It is a technique they developed to study severe thunderstorms in the stratosphere.

"The combination of volcanic heat and the amount of superheated moisture from the ocean made this eruption unprecedented. It was like a hyper-fuel for a mega-thunderstorm, ”Bedka said, adding,“ The plume went 2.5 times higher than any thunderstorm we've ever observed, and the eruption generated an incredible amount of lightning strikes. ”

According to a global lightning detection network run by the Finnish company Vaisala, the eruption triggered 400,000 lightning strikes over the course of six hours. “This is what makes it significant from a meteorological point of view,” added Bedka.

NASA and HeroX are crowdsourcing the search for life on Mars

For almost 60 years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next 15 years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.

Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.

Despite sixty years of concerted efforts by multiple space agencies, the search for life on Mars has yielded little more than inconclusive results (as demonstrated by the Viking 1 and 2 landers). Nevertheless, modern surveys have found that Mars was a much warmer and wetter place billions of years ago. This discovery is one of the most profound breakthroughs in planetary science and has led to renewed efforts to find evidence of past (and maybe even present) life on Mars.

During the Noachian Period (ca. 4.1 to 3.5 billion years ago), Mars had a denser atmosphere, and surface conditions were warm enough that liquid water flowed on its surface. Evidence of this is preserved today in the form of river channels, sedimentary deposits, delta fans, and other features known to form in the presence of flowing water. By knowing how long these conditions persisted, scientists hope to determine how long life could have existed.

Unfortunately, conducting chemical analysis on soil and rock samples is time-consuming work. Moreover, analyses can suffer from false positives when they are strictly reliant on human interpretation. By leveraging machine-learning techniques, where analytical models are created from huge datasets, scientists hope to automate the chemical analysis process, making it more efficient and less time-consuming.

For this challenge, NASA is looking innovative methods to automatically analyze data obtained by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument aboard the Curiosity rover. This data is provided by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and Johnson Space Center (JSC), and the SAM science team. For years, Curiosity has used the SAM instrument to gather Martian soil and rock samples and subject them to evolved gas analysis (EGA).

This consists of heating samples until they emit gases that can be analyzed by spectrometers for specific chemical signatures. The SAM instrument accomplishes this with a gas chromatograph that separates gases to aid in identifying them, a mass spectrometer that detects elements necessary for life, and a tunable laser spectronometer that detects water vapor and analyzes methane to see if it is biotic in origin (produced by living things).

Greg Lipstein, the principal of DrivenData, said in the challenge press release: 'This is a fascinating research question where machine learning tools can have a real impact on how we can learn more about our place in the universe. It's a great chance to harness the collective intelligence and passion of the data community to advance the state of open science.'

According to the challenge page, the best methods should be able to detect certain families of chemical compounds that are of interest to astrobiologists. These include nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, oxygen, and carbon, the chemical building blocks of life, and volatiles such as water, ammonia, and methane, which are associated with biological processes. Competitors will also be able to advantage of the many experimental runs done on analog samples.

From this, competitors are tasked with developing machine learning methods that will support scientists in analyzing and interpreting data collected by missions (in-situ samples) and laboratory instruments (from sample-return missions). It is also hoped that these advancements will help scientists conduct future mission operations with greater speed and efficiency. The competition launched on February 18th and will remain open to submissions until April 18th, 2022.

The winning techniques will receive $15,000 (first place), $7,500 (second), $5,000 (third), with a bonus prize of $2,500. In addition, the winning entries may be used to help analyze data from Mars and potentially even inform future instruments conducting in-situ analysis. This includes the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars 2022 mission, consisting of the Russian Kazachok lander, the ESA Rosalind Franklin rover, and NASA's Dragonfly mission to Titan (Saturn's largest moon).

'It's exciting to think there might be clues of past life on Mars,' said HeroX CEO Kal K. Sahota. 'These challenges are so inspiring as we search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.'

The challenge is open to anyone aged 18 or older, and participants may compete as individuals or as a team. The competition is open to individuals and teams from anywhere in the world, provided federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (some additional restrictions may apply). For more information on the rules, or to accept the challenge, visit

Citation: NASA and HeroX are crowdsourcing the search for life on Mars (2022, February 22) retrieved 22 February 2022 from

This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Powered by Blogger.