The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists may have found a new way to track secret nuclear tests from those rogue nations (cough cough North Korea cough cough) who are trying to keep those tests under wraps. Surprisingly enough, that new solution may be possible with analysis of regular old GPS data, along with some clever mathematics.
In May 2009, North Korea detonated a clandestine nuclear test, a kilometer underground. That's worrisome for obvious reasons, and more worrisome because performing the test underground severely limits our ability to measure the size and specifics of the blast--no radioactive gas or dust was let into the air, as it usually would. But that doesn't mean there are no signs of radioactive explosions.
When a nuclear blast that large goes off underground, it sends a shockwave of disturbed air into the ionosphere. That shockwave is typically hard to measure, but these scientists may have found a way, using regular GPS. GPS, see, relies on timing more than anything else to determine location: it measures the time the signal takes to rebound from a device to the satellite, and vice versa. But disturbances in the air can change those measurements, so GPS units have sophisticated algorithms to sense and adjust to that kind of disturbance--so why not the nuclear shockwave?
The scientists performed some tests after the 2009 blast, and found that they were able to nail down the location and timing of the blast using eleven different satellites. They're optimistic that this tech could be used to supplement other ways of confirming that an illicit blast took place. They even hope that this technology might compel the U.S. to reconsider its refusal to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which I personally am skeptical about but would certainly be great if it was true. For more info on nuclear power, check out our explainer.
Maybe this could also be better monitoring of tremors and earth quakes and tsunamis. And with better math and sensitivity of airpressure devices it could help with better weather prediction as well. Maybe this is just the beginning of something great. Hmm, the possibilites...
With the advent of laser enrichment solved by GE there is sure to be more proliferations in the future. Iran probably already is using this instead of centrifuges to enrich Uranium.
Thanks to GE and other companies research we can be ensured of a less stable future.
Making it top secret won't keep the secrets for long. Just look what happened with the 'secret' hydrogen bomb technology for proof of that.
These satellites are suppose to pick up unique energy signatures that are given off from a nuclear blast (even if they occur underground).
However, I won't even pretend to know about the mechanical effects of Earthquakes and tsunamis. If these natural disturbances send similar shockwaves through the atmosphere, I'd have to assume they are of a limited nature compared to a radioactive blast, but it is possible.
As a matter of fact I believe similar methods are used to track (at least) tsunamis as they happen. Of course most of those methods are ground-based as opposed to space-based.
That's just the truth of all technological advancement. Devices of war are always tightly held secrets until such devices are ready for employment in conflict. Once the devices have inflicted their effects to the specified target, observers on the receiving end of devices already have just enough evidence to begin development of their own variant just by witnessing the devices in action.
The next step from that is aquiring the knowledge through espionage, defection, or simply obtaining knowledge from specialists that may have skills remotely related to the function of a given device.
We humans are very intelligent beings. Given time, we can figure out how something works and how to develop certain things on our own. The fact of the matter is nothing can really stay secret because someone either comes up with the same idea later, a certain culture eventually reaches a level of advancement comparable to a more advanced culture, and because our lack of invincibility and infallibility makes it impossible for us to keep secrets from each other indefinitely.
How is the shock wave so hard to measure? I thought seismographs did a pretty good job of that. My understanding is that a nuclear detonation looks different from an earthquake, so keeping it secret isn't going to happen. It's nice there is another tool, but please don't understate the previous tools.
My intention was not to understate methods of detecting Earthquakes. I was observing the difference between that and the proposed method of detecting underground nuclear detonation.
I think they are looking to use space-based technology because these blast send kinetic energy 'spaceward' giving off a unique signature that can be identifiable as a nuclear blast and easily pin pointed to a specific spot on the globe.
This concept is a seaker rather than a warning/forecast concept.
As for Earthquakes and tsunamis, ground-based tools are more useful at sensing these occurences than a satellite network several miles above the surface would.
In regards to the laser enrichment of uranium and the development of other technologies, there is also this little thing known as "parallel development". Thomas Edison wasn't the first person to invent the lightbulb, he was just the first person to bring it to the general public. The same with almost all the predecessors to today's telecommunications technology. GE may be behind the ball in this case, not ahead.
@JD929 Seismographic instruments can only work if they are in range of the disturbance, and triangulation is required to pinpoint the location. As the only reliable and trustworthy data would be coming out of South Korea, that isn't enough to pinpoint a location, and therefore the yield cannot be determined. If the yield is small enough, it might not even be detected by seismographic sensors outside of North Korea. Ionospheric disturbances on the other hand can be measured from orbit without boarder violations.
BubbaGump, they've already noted disturbances in the Ionosphere in relation to earthquakes as well as tsunamis. It was even mentioned on popsci.
when the iraq war started ghadafy gave up on his nation nuclear tests. big mistake as lybia is now a weaker state. for north korea nuclear capabilities are a must and they will never back down. it is better to be independent than being a us marionet or other country plaything.
@Sickness, WOW! Thanks for the information and links! ;)
" it measures the time the signal takes to rebound from a device to the satellite, and vice versa. "
Please PS contributers, at the very least, read a wiki article about your subject before you author something that sounds authoritative. You are only helping to perpetuate the layperson's misunderstanding of a very important technology.
GPS in no way relies upon the transmission of a signal from the user's device (as your article makes it sound and so many people misbelieve). A GPS unit only receives signals from the satellites. A GPS device (for the purposes of determining its locaton) is a RECEIVER ONLY. That's not to say a GPS unit cannot broadcast its location (i.e. like the one in your cell phone) but it doesn't need to transmit any information to determine its location.
I know this seems to be petty nit picking but you guys as journalists have some level of responsiblity to educate your readers. They are voters and are determining the fate of this country. Are you a science writer or did you stay a Holiday Inn Express last night?
See "BASIC CONCEPT OF GPS"
By the way, I think you guys at PS do a good job of things overall. I know you have commercial pressures to get things posted and printed as fast as possible.
And I by no means endorse Wikipedia as an authorative source but it's good enough for casual use. I wouldn't try to practice medicine based on crowdsourced information but I might use it as a sanity check if I was going to write a news article.
Wouldn't being able to track the "secret" nuclear tests make them... not secret?
Yes, the author got things turned around. The scientists were measuring signals FROM satellites TO receivers, not the other way around, and it wasn't from "eleven different satellites," it was from 11 RECEIVERS at 11 different locations.
As an interesting coincidence, GPS satellites have always been involved in nuclear detection -- each satellite also carries detectors that are part of the Nuclear Detonation Detection System. These detectors are not part of the GPS system itself, they just ride on the satellite.