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Space surveillance shows that the ground beneath our feet is not quite as solid as it seems. Earth’s crust is continuously in motion, driven by gradual geological shifting that occasionally speeds up, in the potentially destructive form of earthquakes or volcanoes.

Looking down on Earth from hundreds of kilometres away in space has proven a surprisingly accurate way of detecting slight sub-centimetre-scale motion across tens of kilometres of terrain that might otherwise go unobserved.

Combining together multiple radar images of the same location through a technique called Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry highlights tiny land changes that have occurred between acquisitions. It’s a technique that has been used to survey the seismically active belts that make up around 15% of global land area, in order to search out previously unknown fault lines.

InSAR has also been used to survey supposedly extinct volcanoes – slight signs of ‘breathing’ indicate continued active status.

ESA’s GOCE mission peers deeper into solid Earth by measuring slight variations in Earth’s gravity field to detect hidden features, such as subsurface water aquifers, deep ocean currents, volcanic magma plumes and polar ice sheets.

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Searching for underground energy sources from space

27 July 2015

Data from ESA's GOCE gravity satellite are being used to improve models of Earth's geology, indicating the potential locations of subsurface energy sources.

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Seven ESA satellites team up to explore Earth's magnetic field

01 July 2015

For the first time ever, two of ESA's flagship space missions - Cluster and Swarm - have joined forces to simultaneously measure the properties of Earth's magnetic field at two different altitudes.

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Geoid

The use of satellite data in the detailed study and precise measurement of the Earth's geoid in order to improve our understanding both of the Earth's interior, and dynamic topography of the world's oceans.

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Geomagnetism

Observations show that geomagnetic field lines follow closely the atmospheric circulation patterns and that geomagnetic field variations are precursors to climate change. Therefore close monitoring of the local and global geomagnetic field variations by satellite systems will assist prediction of hurricane tracks, intensification and also long-term weather trends.

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Tectonics

The monitoring of the movement and deformation of the Earth's crust with the aim of understanding its evolution and of predicting major seismic events. Interferometry is an important technique in this application.