NASA explores underground substructures below fault

September 26, 2012 by Ruth Marlaire, NASA

NASA explores underground substructures below fault
The SIERRA UAS collected data and then sent it to a radio receiver held by a USGS researcher riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) in the field. Credit: NASA Ames
(—The Surprise Valley Fault, a stretch of land that snakes along the Warner Mountain Range in northeastern California, is pocked with small surface scars and billows steam from hot springs, which makes it an ideal location to study underground seismic activity. In the past, data collection was limited to ground surveys performed by foot and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. This year, data collection of this treacherous terrain was enhanced by employing an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), called the Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft (SIERRA), managed and operated by NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

SIERRA is a small, lightweight, low-flying UAS that can carry a relatively large payload weighing about 100 lbs. over a significant range of approximately 600 miles. The is designed to fly very low altitude missions for remote area surveys like the Surprise Valley project, led by the U.S. Geological Survey and funded by NASA.

"This mission highlights an important science niche for the small to medium class of ," said Matt Fladeland, SIERRA's project manager. "These aircraft can collect data at slow speeds at very low altitudes over the surface in remote locations without risking life, or high-value aircraft."

Team members drove to Cedarville Airport near Surprise Valley to send SIEERA on its first flight mission. Credit: NASA Ames

Researchers from NASA's Ames, U.S. Geological Survey, San Francisco, Calif., Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Wash. and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Penn., met in the small rural community of Surprise Valley in early September 2012 to further investigate underground faults and fractures and better understand the flow of hot spring fluids through the network of crevices and channels. By investigating this geothermal fluid , they hope to refine their predictions of damaging earthquakes in the region.

This field season, SIERRA was programmed to collect data along a specified . Flying in a broad zigzag pattern across Surprise Valley, the aircraft collected magnetic data from large features in previously unexplored areas. As part of its payload, the UAS carried a cesium magnetometer and a fluxgate magnetometer, an instrument that corrects for magnetic data interference from the aircraft that may obscure the readings from the subsurface structures they are mapping. As part of the communication process, the aircraft transmitted flight parameter and magnetic data to radio receivers operated by researchers in the field, which then was stored onto a hard drive as a backup, in case the computer aboard the aircraft failed or aircraft crashed.

After the field deployment, scientists will estimate fault activity by comparing the magnetic data to topographic data of earlier field studies to correlate subsurface structures to areas of displacement from the fault center. Next year, a second field deployment is scheduled that researchers hope will produce a first-ever 3-D map to provide a more complete image of the geophysical data of Surprise Valley and help predict the likelihood and severity of earthquakes in this area.

In addition, the Surprise Valley municipal government can use the map to investigate land and water use issues, since water toxicity has been identified in the area, and study the geothermal system as a sustainable energy source.

Explore further: NASA unmanned aircraft measures low altitude greenhouse gases

Related Stories

NASA unmanned aircraft measures low altitude greenhouse gases

December 6, 2011

( -- For the first time, NASA researchers have demonstrated the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to collect very low altitude airborne measurements of greenhouse gases at several sites in California and ...

NASA flies greenhouse gas mission over Nevada salt flat

July 7, 2011

Scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., joined a multi-institute team of researchers June 17-27, 2011, to investigate carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions from a dry lake bed and neighboring ...

Airborne expedition chases Arctic sea ice questions

July 17, 2009

A small NASA aircraft completed its first successful science flight Thursday in partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder as part of an expedition to study the receding Arctic sea ice and improve understanding ...

NASA studies vegetation canopy water content, soil moisture

December 22, 2011

( -- Scientists seeking insight into the role vegetation plays in water fluctuation between soil and the atmosphere recently conducted research using specialized sensors during a series of NASA Airborne Science ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.