September 5, 2012

Unmanned Aircraft Gathers Magnetic Data to Map Underground Faults

by Christine Hoekenga

SIERRA Aircraft in Surprise Valley

SIERRA, or the Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft, waits at the airport for her first flight of the season in Surprise Valley, California. Image courtesy: Melissa Pandika.

Meet SIERRA, or the Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft, if you want to be formal about it.  She’s an independent little aircraft that flies without a pilot, collecting magnetic data to map underground faults and other geophysical features beneath the surface.

Starting this week, a team of scientists and engineers will be working with SIERRA in Surprise Valley, California. The team includes Visionlearning’s own Anne Egger, assistant professor of geological sciences and science education at Central Washington University, as well as researchers from the USGS and NASA. The data they gather in Surprise Valley will help them create a three-dimensional map showing the locations of various faults and fissures, revealing how the water that boils up in local hot springs circulates underground, and offering clues about potential earthquake hazards in the area.

Melissa Pandika, a science journalism masters student at Stanford University, is chronicling the field expedition.  You can follow along on the USGS, NASA, or Scientific American Expeditions blogs or on Twitter.  Or browse photos from the field on Flickr.

For more about what lies beneath our planet’s surface, check out our module Earth Structure: A Virtual Journey to the Center of the Earth

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.