Can working with volcanoes take you to space?

‘We couldn’t have imagined that we’d end up working for NASA. This project was born out of a failure, where we couldn’t get funding for our initial idea and played around with other options. Now our technology is being developed for lunar exploration.’

Scientists at the University of Sheffield are set to use revolutionary ultraviolet camera smartphone technology to monitor volcanoes in Northern Chile.

Dr Andrew McGonigle is a Reader in Volcano Remote Sensing in the Department of Geography. His team, including Dr Tom Pering and Dr Tom Wilkes, developed smartphone technology to monitor volcanoes, help predict volcanic eruptions and protect ‘at risk’ communities.

Their method has been widely applied and is used in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicuagura, Hawaii, Papua New Guinea and more. The technology has also been picked up by volcano observatories who want to acquire data not just for science but for monitoring purposes.

Dr McGonigle said: ‘The key thing is that it’s a really low-cost solution. The camera we’ve used costs about £20. We reverse engineered that, then built a system that can measure the gas release of a volcano, for a build cost of about £500. Previously available units would cost around £20,000 which isn’t as accessible for the communities living near volcanoes.

Since the release of this technology, Dr McGonigle and the team were contacted by NASA who were looking for a lightweight low-cost sensor which could capture ultraviolet imagery.

‘Those things just don’t exist on the market’ said Dr McGonigle, ‘and NASA was looking for a tiny instrument that weighed less than 60g, to send into space and measure substance from within the rocks on the surface of the moon. So NASA had an engineering problem. From their point of view, they were thinking ‘how do we find this?’ They could have developed something within NASA but it would have cost an absolute fortune and from their point of view, it was a lot easier to just come and have a conversation with us.’

The team was contracted in and adapted the volcano model for lunar exploration. The technology was shipped to the US for engineering and Andrew, Tom and Tom worked alongside the engineering subcontractors to develop it further.

‘We had video calls every week to work through how we’d put it all together, how to solve some of the software and hardware challenges, and then it was tested to get it working on Earth,’ said Dr. McGonigle.

‘The testing requirements are massive, there are eight levels. TRL1 means you chat with your mates about it in the pub and think ‘hey that might work, let’s give it a try.’ TRL8 means it’s working and it’s on the surface of the moon and it’s doing what you said it would do.’

‘We’ve got it to TRL4, so we’re halfway there which is pretty amazing. To say that we’re working with a £20 adapted sensor which has the potential for lunar application — I was just amazed that we got to where we got to. It has demonstrated sufficient sensitivity for its purpose.’

If the technology passes the testing requirements, it could tell us more about the chemistry of the moon to help our understanding of how the solar system came to be, and how it works today.

‘The other reason,’ says Dr. McGonigle, ‘is that at some point, there is the intention to send people back to the moon. Now, we don’t know what the future holds, but if there’s any intention to have humans stay on the moon for longer than we’ve already achieved through the lunar landings, there is a series of questions around life support for human beings. So this whole idea of looking for something in the atmosphere is related to water and rocks, is related to thinking about life support and how might those astronauts source their oxygen and water.

‘We couldn’t have imagined that we’d end up working for NASA. This project was born out of a failure, where we couldn’t get funding for our initial idea and played around with other options. Now our technology is being developed for lunar exploration.’

For more information on the team’s work, see the following:

Andrew McGonigle wins Rolex Award for work in forecasting volcano eruptions

Diary of a Volcanologist with Dr Tom Pering




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