NASA Satellites Help With Disaster Response Along Türkiye/Syria Border

Some of NASA’s Earth-observation satellites are helping with response to the earthquake along the Türkiye/Syria border by providing real-time data about conditions on the ground.

Earlier this month, Türkiye (formerly Turkey) got hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that also sent out at least one 6.7-magnitude aftershock in its south-central region. The earthquake also produced more than 30 aftershocks above 4.5 magnitude. A separate Magnitude 7.5 earthquake also hit the area just north of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

The area is not far from the Syrian border. So far, the earthquake and its aftermath have killed more than 25,000 people in the area.

Civil war in Syria has complicated relief efforts. The Syrian region that was hit hardest by the earthquake is occupied by rebels and the government in Damascus has been reluctant to allow rescuers and equipment to enter the area.

Rescue efforts have gone better on the Türkiye side, with positive stories like the rescue of a two-month-old baby that had been buried by rubble for 128 hours.

Some relief efforts are helped by orbiting satellites that can provide a clear view of the dynamic situation after a natural disaster. NASA can use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to provide critical data. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is a radar imaging technology that is used to produce high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface. It works by transmitting a radar signal towards the target and measuring the reflected signal. By analyzing the reflected signal, a SAR-equipped system can create images that show the location, shape, and texture of objects on the ground.

The term “synthetic aperture” refers to the way that SAR uses the motion of the radar antenna to synthesize a large antenna aperture, allowing it to achieve high spatial resolution. This makes SAR particularly useful for applications where high resolution is needed, such as mapping, surveillance, and remote sensing.

SAR can be used to produce images of the Earth’s surface in any weather conditions, including cloud cover and darkness, making it a valuable tool for a wide range of applications, including environmental monitoring and disaster response.

The Earth Observatory of Singapore, NASA’s Earth Science Applied Sciences, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory collaborated to generate a damage proxy map using SAR-based data. They compared images taken before and after the earthquake occurred. NASA can also make observations and maps available through the Disaster Mapping Portal and collaborate with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide critical data for disaster relief efforts.

Aid efforts can use the data to gain a better understanding of where to deliver critical supplies like food and water.

“We don’t know everyone who is using this information or how, but we are fortunate to have heard back from a few groups. For instance, the World Central Kitchen – which is providing food to those who’ve been displaced – have let us know they make use of it,” said Lori Schultz, a NASA disaster coordinator who has been leading the space agency’s efforts to provide data from Earth observation satellites to first responders in Turkey and Syria.

Satellites like Suomi-NPP, a climate and weather monitoring satellite that is a joint project managed by NASA and NOAA, can also be used to support disaster response and management, providing critical information to first responders during hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

Internationally owned satellites like JAXA’s ALOS-2 and Europe’s Copernicus 1 have also provided valuable data and images of the earthquake zone.

In the near future, NASA hopes to use the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) instrument for purposes like tracking the aftermath of the earthquake. This instrument was launched to the International Space Station in July 2022 and can track dust particles in the atmosphere. NASA says it is still analyzing EMIT’s ability to help provide data for disaster relief.

Besides using its own satellites and instruments, NASA can buy data generated by privately owned satellites through the Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program. The NASA Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program is a NASA initiative aimed at obtaining data from small satellites for scientific and research purposes. The program provides a platform for commercial companies and academic institutions to deliver smallsat data to NASA, which can then be used to advance a variety of scientific and technological goals. The data can also be used to support disaster relief efforts like the ones in Turkey and Syria.

“NASA’s hearts and minds are with those impacted by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “NASA is our eyes in the sky, and our teams of experts are working hard to provide valuable information from our Earth-observing fleet to first responders on the ground.”