Mayon Volcano Threatens Major Eruption

Mayon Volcano, on the Philippine island of Luzon, has been exhibiting activity suggesting a major eruption is imminent. Described as an “intense level of unrest” by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, Mayon exhibited 7 ash explosions, dozens of earthquakes related to the movement of magma beneath the volcano, over 100 rock falls from the summit, and 3 active lava flows. The Philippine government is enforcing evacuations in a danger zone extending 7 kilometers (4 miles) north and 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of the summit. Tens of thousands of people living within the danger zone (up to 8 kilometers away) of Mayon Volcano in the Philippines were forced to evacuate to emergency shelters in mid-December 2009.

The satellite image above shows Mayon emitting a thin volcanic plume on Dec. 28. Ash obscures the summit crater and clouds hide lava flows on the volcano’s flanks. The natural-color image was acquired by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) aboard the NASA Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite.

Below, the image from Dec. 15 shows how close a major populated area is to the volcano.

Mayon Volcano on Dec. 15, 2009.

The volcano has been noticeably active for several weeks, and officials say “magma is close to the crater and hazardous explosive eruption is imminent.”

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Record Setting US Snowstorm as Seen From Space

A record-setting snowstorm that blanketed the US Atlantic coast snarled both road and air traffic as holiday travelers and shoppers were forced to stay home. In all, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reported 66 daily snow records in the northeastern United States were tied or broken over the weekend. Additionally, 21 monthly snow total records were tied or broken. Snowfall totals from 30 – 60 cm (1 to 2 feet) were commonplace.

This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite shows the Chesapeake Bay area cloaked in white on December 21, 2009, the first day of northern hemisphere winter. The winter solstice occurred Monday at 16:47 GMT (11:47 am EST). Learn more about the solstice on today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, “December Solstice, Celebrating the Light” by Dr. Judith Young.

The image above encompasses about 480 km (300 miles) lengthwise. The two big rivers near the center are the Susquehanna (north) and Potomac rivers, which flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Washington, D.C., sits alongside the Potomac, just north of the river’s hook-shaped curve. The inlet to the north is Delaware Bay.

Source: NASA’s Earth Observatory

Giant Iceberg Still Heading for Australia (Satellite Images)

Iceberg B17-B Adrift Off the Southwestern Coast of Australia as seen on Dec. 11, 2009. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A city-sized iceberg that has been making its way towards Australia’s southwestern coast is now breaking up into hundreds of smaller icebergs as it drifts into warmer waters. This is creating potentially hazardous conditions for ships trying to navigate the region. The iceberg, known as B17B, was spotted last week on satellite imaging about 1,100 miles (1,700 kilometers) off Western Australia state, prompting Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology to issue a shipping alert. When first observed, B17B was a whopping 140 square kilometers (54 square miles). Now, it is about 115 square kilometers (44 square miles), or around 18 kilometers (11 miles) long and 8 kilometers (5 miles) wide, said glaciologist Neal Young of the Australian Antarctic Division. Still, that is one huge iceberg.

Iceberg B17-B Adrift Off the Southwestern Coast of Australia  as seen on Nov. 29, 2009. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
Iceberg B17-B Adrift Off the Southwestern Coast of Australia as seen on Nov. 29, 2009. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

B17B has broken up into hundreds of smaller icebergs, some up to several kilometers wide, and spread over more than 1,000 kilometers of ocean. Young said he expects it to dissipate, but is unsure when that will happen.

The iceberg is one of several that split off in Antarctica in 2000 when parts of two major ice shelves — the Ross Sea Ice Shelf and Ronne Ice Shelf — fractured.

Icebergs frequently split or “calve” off Antarctica’s ice shelves, and they often get swept up in strong circumpolar currents that carry them around the icy continent. Occasionally icebergs drift northward, out of the continent’s orbit. Only rarely, however, do icebergs drift as far north as Australia without melting, which is why scientists were surprised to spot this especially gigantic iceberg in its current location.

Sources: NASA Earth Observatory, AP

Here are some cool iceberg pictures.

Google Satellite

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve probably had a chance to use either Google Earth or Google Maps. Both of these tools allow you to see a satellite view of the Earth, and zoom right in to see your home from space. But is there a Google satellite to take these photographs?

Google doesn’t actually have a satellite of their own. Instead, they use images from a variety of sources and store them on their servers. These images come from NASA satellites, USGS aerial surveys, and satellite photos from commercial operators. Google has an exclusive contract with a company called GeoEye, which recently launched their GeoEye-1 satellite. This commercial satellite blasted off on September 6, 2008, and is capable of resolving images on the Earth down to a size of 0.41 meters.

So how can you use these images? The easiest tool to use is Google Maps. This is a web-based tool that lets you browse around satellite photos of the Earth. You can zoom in and out, and type in a specific address anywhere on Earth to go right there. It also has driving directions, and all kinds of features that you can turn on and off to give you more information – like local sightseeing highlights.

The other tool that Google has created is called Google Earth. Unlike Google Maps, you actually need to download Google Earth to your local computer; PC, Mac, Linux, and even on your iPhone. Once you have the application installed, you see a 3-D version of the Earth that you can spin around, zoom in and out. You can zero in to any spot on Earth and see the highest resolution images they have available. There’s also a big community of developers who have created additional views that you can install. This lets you see additional photographs, contour maps, etc.

We have written many articles about Google satellite views. Here’s an article about how Google’s satellite had a bird’s eye view of the Obama Inauguration, and here’s a tool for Google Earth that lets you track satellite debris.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about satellites. Listen here, Episode 100: Rockets.

Get a $36 Million World Map for Free

When the first Landsat Earth-observing satellite launched in 1972, virtually every piece of technology that we think of as essential for viewing, sharing, or analyzing digital images — like the internet or DVD’s — either hadn’t been invented or commercialized, like the microprocessors that run desktop computers. “It cost about $4,000 for a single Landsat image, and it takes about 9,000 of them to map the land area of the globe,” said Jeff Masek, from NASA. “To make a global image for just one time period would have cost $36 million.” But now, in this age where everything is digital and it’s easy to exchange information, anyone can download Landsat images for free. Recently, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey put the finishing touches on a new collection of mapped images covering the entire land surface of the Earth. However, if you want the entire full-size version, it would be as big as the Hoover Dam.

This collaboration between NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. National Geospatial Agency, the Global Land Survey 2005 features around 9,500 images from NASA’s Landsat satellites captured between 2004–2007.

A Landsat image that could be artwork.
A Landsat image that could be artwork.

The images are detailed enough to make out features as small as 30 meters (about one-third the length of an American football field), they have been carefully screened for clouds, and each one shows the landscape during its growing season.

Some of the images are as striking as a piece of artwork. Stitched together into a single mosaic, the collection paints the most detailed picture of Earth’s land surface a person can get for free.

For more information see these two Landsat sites:

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Crescent Earth as Seen by Comet Chasing Spacecraft

Title this one “Rich Blue Crescent” (as opposed to Pale Blue Dot.) This spectacular image of our home planet was captured by the OSIRIS instrument on ESA’s Rosetta comet chaser today (November 12) at 12:28 GMT from about 633,000 km as the spacecraft approached Earth for the third and final swingby. Closest approach is due at 07:45 GMT, on November 13. You can follow Rosetta’s progress at ESA’s Rosetta site and the Rosetta Blog.

Satellite Map

There are thousands of satellites overhead in space right now, and many of them are being used to map every single square meter of planet Earth. And many of these images are being freely distributed on the Internet so you can access them through any browser. If you’re looking for a satellite map, there are many services out there that can help you out.

Probably the easiest and best place to start is with the Google Maps service from Google. This allows you to see a satellite map of the entire Earth. You can drag around the map to browse around the planet, and you can zoom out and in right down to the highest resolution images they have in their server. In many cases this means you can see your house, your yard, and even your car parked out in the street. You can also type in a specific address location and go straight there. There are street maps you can overlay or remove, you can get driving directions, and much more. And the Google Maps API has been made available by Google to other websites, so people are developing mashups that let you track running routes and find the nearest bathroom.

An even cooler satellite mapping service is Google Earth. Unlike Google Maps, you have to download Google Earth to your local PC, Mac or Linux machine (there’s even an iPhone version). Then you get this cool spinning 3-D version of the Earth. You can zoom out and in, type in a specific location address or geocode to find any spot on Earth. They also have a big library of additional layers that you can put over top, to see additional information mapped on the Earth. It’s well worth the download.

Another good service is TerraServer; they let you buy satellite maps if you want a nice printed version for your wall. If you don’t want to use Google, there are similar mapping tools from Microsoft and Yahoo.

We have written many articles about how satellites are being used to map the Earth. Here’s an article about how scientists use satellite photos to track penguin poop from space, and how Google’s maps had a satellite view of Obama’s inauguration.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Planet Earth.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent is Third Lowest on Record

U.S. satellite measurements show Arctic sea ice extent in 2009 – the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by floating ice – was the third lowest since satellite measurements were first made in 1979. While the ice area at minimum was an increase from the past two years, it is still well below the average for the past 30 years. In the video above, Tom Wagner, NASA’s cryosphere program manager, describes the shrinking of Arctic sea ice and the significance of the problem for the rest of the planet.
Continue reading “Arctic Sea Ice Extent is Third Lowest on Record”

NASA 3-D Map Shows Flooding Rains of Typhoon Ketsana

Data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite has been used to create a 3-D map of rainfall over the Phillipines from September 21-28, 2008. Armed with both a passive microwave sensor and a space-borne precipitation radar, TRMM has been measuring the amount of rainfall created by the tropical cyclone, Typhoon Ketsana (known in the Phillippines as “Ondoy”). A record 13.43 inches of rain fell in Manila in six hours between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. local time, which is equivalent to about a month’s worth of rain for the area. In just 24 hours, Ketsana dropped 17.9 inches (455 mm) of rain in Manila in just 24 hours on Saturday, September 26.

The TRMM-based, near-real time Multi-satellite Precipitation Analysis (TMPA) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. is used to monitor rainfall over the global Tropics. TMPA rainfall totals for the 7-day period 21 to 28 September 2009 for the northern Philippines and the surrounding region showed that the highest rainfall totals occurred south of the storm’s track in an east-west band over central Luzon that includes Manila. Amounts in this region are on the order of 375 mm (~15 inches) to over 475 mm (~19 inches). The highest recorded amount from the TMPA near Manila was 585.5 mm (almost 24 inches).

Ketsana maintained minimal tropical storm intensity as it crossed central Luzon on the afternoon of September 26 (local time). The main deluge in the Manila area, located on the western side of Luzon, began around 8:00 a.m. local time even though the center of Ketsana had yet to make landfall on the eastern side of the island.

Click here to watch an animation of the TRMM satellite data.

The enhanced rainfall over on the Manila-side of the island as the storm approached was because of an interaction between Ketsana’s circulation and the seasonal southwest monsoon.

On-the-ground photos of the devastation Ketsana’s rains caused can been seen at the Boston Globe’s Big Picture.

More info about TRMM.
Source: NASA

GOCE Satellite Begins Mapping Earth’s Gravity in Lower Orbit Than Expected

Is Earth’s gravity field as intriguing and misshapen as this image above? We’re about to find out. The sexy looking Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer or GOCE satellite has completed its calibration and is now in its science orbit to map the tiny variations of Earth’s gravity in unprecedented detail. And it turns out the sun’s current period of low solar activity has a side benefit for the GOCE mission. Less solar activity means a calmer environment for GOCE in its low Earth orbit, so its current orbit of 255 km is a few kilometers lower than engineers had originally planned. This is good news – the gravity measurements being made at the moment will be even more accurate.

“The completion of the commissioning and first in-flight calibration marks an important milestone for the mission, ” said Rune Floberghagen, ESA’s GOCE Mission Manager. “We are now entering science operations and are looking forward to receiving and processing excellent three-dimensional information on the structure of Earth’s gravity field.”

Anaglyph created from an ESA GOCE craft animation. Credit:  ESA and Nathanial Burton Bradford
Anaglyph created from an ESA GOCE craft animation. Credit: ESA and Nathanial Burton Bradford

Gravity is stronger closer to Earth, so GOCE was designed to orbit as low as possible while remaining stable as it flies through the fringes of our atmosphere. GOCE’s sleek aerodynamic design helps this the satellite to cut though the tenuous fringes of Earth’s atmosphere at this low altitude. Moreover, the electric ion thruster at the back continuously generates tiny forces to compensate for any drag that GOCE experiences along its orbit.

To help avoid drag and ensure that the gravity measurements are of true gravity, the satellite has to be kept stable in ‘free fall’. Any buffeting from residual air at this low altitude could potentially drown out the gravity data.

Space gradiometry and the use of the sophisticated electric propulsion are both ‘firsts’ in satellite technology, so the commissioning and calibration were particularly important for the success of the mission. This phase was completed in the summer, ready for the tricky task of bringing GOCE down to its operational altitude, which took a couple of months.

Worldwide gravity gradients from simulations. GOCE is now gathering data such as shown here to map Earth's gravity with unprecedented accuracy and spatial resolution. Credit:  ESA
Worldwide gravity gradients from simulations. GOCE is now gathering data such as shown here to map Earth's gravity with unprecedented accuracy and spatial resolution. Credit: ESA

Over two six-month uninterrupted periods, GOCE will map these subtle variations with extreme detail and accuracy. This will result in a unique model of the ‘geoid’ – the surface of an ideal global ocean at rest.

A precise knowledge of the geoid is crucial for accurate measurement of ocean circulation and sea-level change, both of which are influenced by climate. The data from GOCE are also much-needed to understand the processes occurring inside Earth. In addition, by providing a global reference to compare heights anywhere in the world, the GOCE-derived geoid will be used for practical applications in areas such as surveying and leveling.

Stay tuned for some unique data about our home planet from GOCE.

Thanks to Nathanial Burton-Bradford for the terrific anaglyphs he created from a GOCE animation. See more of Nathanial’s images on his Flickr page.

Source: ESA