Monday, January 20, 2014

IIT-Madras students work on satellite to pre-empt quakes

In spite of all the technological advances of the past few decades, accurate prediction of earthquakes has always been beyond the reach of science. Four years ago, a group of IIT-Madras (Indian Institute of Technology-Madras) students decided to give it a shot of their own. They also chose a method that is not yet proven in scientific and technological terms: send a satellite up to detect radiation from the earth prior to an earthquake. The satellite-building has now evolved into a large multidisciplinary project involving 150 students and some professors, as well as mentoring from the engineers at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

In a few months, ISRO will do a preliminary design review of the IIT-M student satellite. Once the design is approved and frozen, the students will begin integrating the satellite components. It will be launched --- if ISRO approves the design and agrees for launch --- by a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) sometime in the fourth quarter of 2015. Once up in the sky, the 15-kg satellite will look for a sudden precipitation of charged particles --- ions --- that is supposed to be the signature of an impending earthquake. "The students are building something hands on and not just writing reports," says David Koilpillai, Dean and Professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT-Madras.

When complete, this will be the third satellite in India to be made in a university. The earlier two launches were challenging projects, but the IIT-M satellite is different in conception, and it will also try to test a theory not yet accepted by the scientific community. "It is good to work on a project that even industry finds hard," says Akshay Gulati, one of the students who began the project. He has since graduated and become a project staff.

The project began in 2009, after some students heard a lecture by Muriel Richard, an engineer at the Swiss technical university EPFL. "We figured out that no Indian satellite had looked at ions," says Gulati. Within a year, the students had identified the payload and shortlisted four instruments. Some students went to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai and watched them build an experimental satellite. But things did not go smoothly. At the end of 2010, two years into the project, many ideas were still not clear and only four students left in the project.

The students then went to David Koilpillai and requested assistance. IIT-Madras then became involved at the institutional level and sanctioned Rs. 30 million, most of it to be raised from the alumni. They also assigned some space within the campus for a lab. The students then did a feasibility study and started the design process. They designed some sub-systems, which Isro engineers reviewed. The project also got integrated with MTech thesis: 14 students have now submitted this work as part of their course requirements. Many of them loved the challenge. Says S Varsha, a third year electrical engineering student who is designing the analogue electronics for the particle detector: "I am able to get practical experience at level difficult in a course." If the students succeed in the project, they might end up making good contributions to science as well.

In the last few decades, scientists have made progress in predicting all natural disasters except earthquakes. Earthquakes can be predicted only when they begin. Before an earthquake happens, the ground is believed to emit low frequency and ultra-low frequency waves. These waves go up and interact with the Van Allen belt, a layer of charged particles more than 1,000 km above the earth.

This is supposed to lead to a sudden precipitation of particles from the belt, which the IIT-M students are trying to detect using a satellite below. But it is not a proven theory. In 2012, US space agency NASA launched two satellites right into the Van Allen belt to study this phenomenon; it is supposed to have found particle precipitations four days before an earthquake. However, NASA scientists also found longer-term associations between particle precipitation and earthquakes, and so do not consider it an accurate method of prediction yet.

Source: The Economic Times (Online Edition), January 20, 2014

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