Satellites key to keeping aircraft away from Iceland's volcanic cloud

NASA and ESA satellites monitor world environment for impact of Iceland’s volcano eruption

nasa: Eyjafjallajoekull volcano
There are a range of satellites from a host of different nations that are pumping out images and data on the Icelandic volcano currently wreaking havoc on commercial airline traffic and aviation in general. 

The four major satellites that are providing key information on the European Space Agency today noted four major satellites that are monitoring the volcano that erupted this week under Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull glacier. They include NASA's Aqua and Aura as well as the European Space Agency's Envisat and MetOp spacecraft. Other satellites such as NASA's Terra  and NOAA's GOES satellite also provide images. 

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According to the ESA, every year there are about 60 volcanic eruptions and over 90 aircraft have been damaged over the years after flying through volcanic ash clouds. The total cost of damage sustained by aircraft due to volcanic ash clouds from 1982-2000 is estimated at $250 million dollars, the ESA stated.   

The problem high-altitude, volcanic ash is that it can contain glass, rocks and other relatively large objects that can get into jet engines and cause them to fail. The ash can also severely damage the material of the aircraft, clog its sensors, limit the view of its pilots, and severely scratch, or sandblast, cockpit windows, landing light covers and parts of the tail and wings, the ESA noted.  

  Ground-based monitoring is carried out on only a limited number of volcanoes. In fact, most volcanoes, especially those which are remotely located, are not monitored on a regular basis. Therefore, satellite observations of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and aerosols in near-real time are key to assessing volcanic eruption impact on air traffic control and public safety, the ESA stated.   

According to NASA volcanic ash particles have distinct spectral signatures that can be used to enhance detection through multi-spectral image processing. Sulfur dioxide is also released in high concentrations during eruptions and exhibits a strong infrared absorption band visible to satellite instruments. 

For example, the instrument known as SCIAMACHY onboard ESA's Envisat is a spectrometer that maps the air over a very wide wavelength range and can detect trace gases, ozone and related gases, clouds and dust particles throughout the atmosphere. It works by measuring sunlight, transmitted, reflected and scattered by the earth's atmosphere or surface in the ultraviolet, visible and near infrared wavelength region. With a 960-km swath it covers the entire world every six days, ESA says. 

Data from such instruments is sent to and monitored through Volcanic Ash Centers all over the world.  Data from these centers is used to decide whether or not to close airspace. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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