Space explorer may predict earthquakes

22:09, Mar 25 2014

Scientists in 10 years may be able to use satellites to monitor tiny changes in the Earth's surface, including predicting seismic activity, if a Nasa space explorer gets his way.

Dr Charles Elachi, who led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team behind the Curiosity rover's landing on Mars in 2012, is in Christchurch to share his passion for the "last frontier".

Elachi was a university student when astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon, but his interest in space exploration started well before then.

"When I was a kid I used to look at the sky and see these beautiful stars. I kept wondering 'Are there other people on those stars? Do they look like us?' Every time we do something new - landing on Mars or flying over Europa - I find that absolutely amazing."

Elachi has never been to space - "It's pretty nice down here on Earth" - but was instrumental in Curiosity's landing in 2012.

The achievement was eight years in the making, from when JPL staff "started to think" to when Curiosity landed on Mars.


"We know the basic ingredients of life actually exist, but we have not yet discovered a cell or anything of that nature. We're looking for organic material. Are there fossilised cells? That would be a tremendous discovery."

Elachi's team at JPL is sending a spacecraft to Jupiter "as we speak".

He says scientists and engineers at JPL are always discussing the future of space exploration.

"We sit down and think 'What are we going to be doing 20 years from now?' We have a number of crazy ideas that we are developing."

Ninety per cent of the ideas might not work, but "sooner or later" one of them will.

"All the people at JPL are explorers . . . in the same way as Captain Cook explored New Zealand."

Elachi says in 10 years JPL may be able to predict from space areas of Earth at high risk of earthquakes.

"You can map even the slightest motion on the surface, to a fraction of an inch, which could give an indication of areas of high stress. We have been doing some observations from space, but they are experimental."

He predicts technological advances will allow scientists to retrieve samples from Mars - by robot - by 2020.

Humans might be able to land there in 2030.

"In this business you have to be very imaginative and not intimidated about things seeming impossible at the beginning."

Mars is a two-year round trip.

The Press