NASA Watches Kilauea Eruption Impacts From Space

The ongoing Kilauea eruption has opened 14 fissures in the past week, including through a residential subdivision called Leilani Estates. Lava has destroyed 35 structures and a second subdivision is also under evacuation orders.

In addition to extensive on-the-ground monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal government is also keeping an eye on the eruption with satellites in orbit around Earth.

That includes an instrument called the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, or ASTER, which looks for unusually hot areas, helping scientists keep an eye on new fissures and other volcanic activity.

Read more: Kilauea Eruption: What Is Volcanic Smog and Why Is It So Dangerous?

ASTER's satellite has been in orbit since 1999. From its perch, it watches for changes on Earth's surface, including not just volcanic activity, but also changes in temperature, vegetation and soil types. Scientists have used ASTER data to produce this image, in which plant growth is shown in red and old lava flows in black.

In this image, vegetation is shown in red and yellow and green mark hot places where lava is flowing or magma is near the surface. NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

The patches of yellow mark hot areas—the leftmost is Kilauea's summit, the middle patch is the Pu'u 'Ō'ō crater where Kilauea had been erupting for more than three decades. The yellow patch on the right side of the image mark new fissures that have formed in Leilani Estates over the past week as the eruption shifts. The image was taken on May 6.

ASTER has also been watching sulfur dioxide gas produced by the volcano through eruptions and quieter cracks in the ground. That sulfur dioxide mixes with gases like carbon dioxide and water to produce volcanic smog, or vog. Sulfur dioxide is shown in yellow in the image.

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In this image of Kilauea and its surroundings, sulfur dioxide—the main ingredient in volcanic smog—is shown in yellow. NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

These plumes are important to track because the sulfur dioxide is hazardous to breathe. The gases being produced by Kilauea are one of the key concerns prompting evacuations of homes near the fissures, in addition to the lava itself.