Press Release

KSC Volcanic Research May Enhance Shuttle Gas Detection Systems

By SpaceRef Editor
May 15, 2003
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A research and development team from Kennedy Space Center (KSC)
recently used a new hazardous gas detection system to study volcanic
emissions in Costa Rica. The new prototype system named the Aircraft-based
Volcanic Emission Mass Spectrometer (AVEMS) also will have a direct
application to the Space Shuttle Program.

The AVEMS is a step toward an advanced system that will be able to detect
toxic gas leaks and emissions in the Space Shuttle aft engine compartment
and the crew compartment, providing an added level of protection for the
astronauts and the vehicle.

“For Shuttle applications, it was especially helpful that we had the
opportunity to fly the system at altitudes of up to about 40,000 feet,” said
Dr. Richard Arkin, ASRC Aerospace Corp.’s lead designer.

Arkin, along with NASA project lead, Dr. Tim Griffin and members of the KSC
team used AVEMS to analyze gases vented from the Turrialba volcano in Costa
Rica. The tests were conducted from the air and in the volcano’s crater.

The study was the first to sample and quantitatively analyze fresh volcanic
gases in their natural state. Active vents in volcanoes, called fumaroles,
produce toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon
dioxide which, if too concentrated, can be fatal.

“Hikers on the volcanoes sometimes get cold then are attracted to the warm
vents. When a large vent is producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide,
the carbon dioxide displaces oxygen, which could be fatal to the hikers
nearby,” said Griffin.

The new system shows promise for commercial applications in a variety of
environments and industries such as semiconductor, petrochemical,
automotive, refrigeration and cathode ray tube. The technology could be
used for breath and blood analysis as well as for monitoring air quality in
the workplace.

“Mass spectrometer technology could be used to ensure public safety and
equipment protection in so many areas,” said Griffin. “Previous mass
spectrometer systems have been so expensive and bulky that their use was
limited to laboratories.” The new system is small and mobile and has the
ability to easily and accurately produce in-depth data.

The Costa Rican project was part of the Costa Rican Airborne Research and
Technology (CARTA) mission and was funded through the National Science
Foundation. Costa Rica USA (CRUSA), a consortium of Costa Rican
universities and government agencies, partnered on the project.

The inspiration for international cooperation that gave rise to the study
came from a discussion between NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz and
University of Costa Rica professor Dr. Jorge Andres Diaz who previously
served as a visiting scientist at KSC.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center provided the WB-57F aircraft and support for the
nine research flights in the hazardous gas study. Ames Research Center
(ARC) provided infrared and visible photography as well as multispectral
imaging on the mission.

Photos of the mission can be accessed by searching AVEMS at

SpaceRef staff editor.