5 March 2018
Toaster sized ‘picosatellites’ could improve our ability to predict the size and spread of ash clouds from erupting volcanoes.

A study by scientists, from the universities of Würzburg, Hamburg, and Lancaster, has shown that a new generation of tiny satellites, due for launch in 2020, have the potential to substantially reduce the uncertainties in current models used to predict ash dispersal from volcanic eruptions.

Uncertainty about where ash clouds would spread after previous eruptions has meant that thousands of kilometres of airspace have been closed to aircraft as a precaution, leaving holidaymakers stranded and costing billions of pounds in lost business.

Dr Klemen Zakšek, the lead author on the study, won first prize at the 3rd Mission Idea Contest for Micro/Nano-Satellite Utilization in 2014 with a proposed mission for photogrammetric observations of volcanic clouds - photogrammetry uses a series of photographs of the same scene to build 3D models.

Prof Klaus Schilling from the Center of Telematics at the University of Würzburg spotted the potential of the photogrammetry proposal and suggested that it matched well with the aims of the planned Telematics Earth Observation Mission (TOM).

The primary goal of TOM is providing accurate satellite data to improve predictive modelling of ash clouds. The mission consist of three picosatellites - tiny satellites that have many benefits over classic satellites including simpler and cheaper designs and faster build times, allowing many more units to be deployed. The TOM satellites, which are around the size of a domestic toaster and equipped with cameras, are planned to launch in 2020.