New uses for GPS technology are being developed just about every day. An impressive, and potentially crisis-averting capability of these satellites was recently discovered by researchers at Ohio State University. They discovered that GPS technology can detect secret nuclear weapon testing. The research began by attempting to identify and eliminate noise detected by the GPS satellites, when they stumbled upon the fact this noise could be caused by nuclear weapons exploding underground in countries like North Korea.
Similar to other seismic activity, such as earthquakes, underground nuclear explosions cause a pulse of energy through the earth’s crust and into the atmosphere. This pulse of energy causes a temporary disturbance in the ionosphere. These disturbances result in noise which disrupts GPS tracking signals. “That noise became our signal,” explained Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, Ohio State University’s professor of Geodetic and Geoinformation Engineering.
The ionospheric disturbance can be detected by GPS receivers on the ground, as well as the satellites orbiting earth. With the help of various points of detection, the GPS technology can be used to trace the pulse of energy back to its source. “It’s very similar to seismological detection of an epicenter (of an earthquake),” Jihye Park explained, post doctoral researcher at Ohio State University. In this way, researchers can determine where nuclear testing is being conducted.
In order to make sure there methods could actually detect nuclear testing, the researchers applied the technique to archived data, which revealed U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada from the 1990s. The data used was taken from radio signals. Despite the limitations of radio technology, there was enough signal disturbance to confirm the researcher’s theories regarding what they were seeing in the GPS signals. Although this information is helpful, using GPS signal interruption is not yet an accepted method of monitoring secret nuclear tests.