view of earth from space (studio23/Shutterstock.com)

Sensing atmospheric energy to identify Earth-bound disturbances

When an earthquake hits, waves of energy transmit not only through the earth but also into the atmosphere. Scientists have observed that disturbances like thunderstorms, tornadoes, volcanos and tsunamis – and even mining operations and meteor explosions -- create wakes that touch the upper reaches of the ionosphere, the ionized part of Earth's upper atmosphere. As that energy passes through the lower atmosphere it might contain enough information that researchers can use to identify the source and develop new detection techniques forecasting tools.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Atmosphere as a Sensor (AtmoSense) program aims to better understand how energy travels from the ground to the ionosphere in hopes that the atmosphere could be used as a sensor to identify natural disturbances.

“We typically model, simulate and measure properties in the troposphere, which is where terrestrial weather happens, but we don’t really make those measurements in the … bottom part of the ionosphere, because no one has really been keenly interested in it and it’s hard to get up there,” said Air Force Major C. David Lewis, who is the AtmoSense program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “But we know that information traverses it, so we’re really looking for scientists and engineers with unique ways of potentially measuring different aspects of the atmosphere.”

According to the broad agency announcement, AtmoSense will explore three technical areas: developing models to connect disturbances on Earth with mechanical and electromagnet effects in the ionosphere; separating out the background “noise” in the atmosphere; and developing new sensing technologies to detect mechanical and electromagnetic signals as they travel through the atmosphere.

If successful, AtmoSense could enable new ways in the future to identify and give insight into events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, tornados and asteroid activity, DARPA officials said.

Abstracts are due March 13. Read the full announcement here.

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