Gravity Satellite Felt Japan Quake from Space

The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite detected atmospheric waves generated by the massive 2011 earthquake that ravaged Japan.

A European Space Agency satellite circling Earth was able to detect the massive 2011 earthquake that ravaged Japan, killing nearly 16,000 people and causing massive destruction, a new study said.

"The atmospheric infrasounds following the great Tohoku earthquake ... induced variations of air density and vertical acceleration of the GOCE platform," said a report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The Gravity Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is the European Space Agency super-sensitive satellite that acts like an orbital seismologist.

Scientists argue that earthquakes not only create seismic waves that travel through Earth's interior, but large tremors also cause the surface of the planet to vibrate like a drum. This produces sound waves that travel upwards through the atmosphere.

GOCE is designed to capture and register these signals.

According to the report, the magnitude 9.0 tremor on March 11, 2011 sent shock waves through the atmosphere that was picked up by the satellite.

"These signals were detected at two positions along the GOCE orbit corresponding to a crossing and a doubling of the infrasonic wavefront created by seismic surface waves," the study said.

It noted that perturbations up to 11 percent of air density and a vertical acceleration of air waves were observed following the quake.

"These perturbations were due to acoustic waves creating vertical velocities up to 130 meters per second," the report pointed out.

The satellite first recorded the signal as it passed over the Pacific Ocean about 30 minutes after the quake and then again 25 minutes later as it moved across Europe.

"Seismologists are particularly excited by this discovery because they were virtually the only Earth scientists without a space-based instrument directly comparable to those deployed on the ground," said Raphael Garcia from the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in France. "With this new tool, they can start to look up into space to understand what is going on under their feet."

The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite in low orbit over Earth.

UPDATE: March 11, 2012

-- This collection of satellite images was originally produced on March 14, 2011, days after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan. The known death toll came to 15,848 with 3,305 missing. The tsunami also inundated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing a series of failures that led to the world's largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The above photos show Yuriage in Natori (top); and Yagawahama (bottom) -- both are in Miyagi prefecture.

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Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant

Image taken in 2004.

Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant

Image from March 12, 2011 (before outer shell collapse).

Industrial Site Just South of Fukushima I Power Plant

Image taken in 2004.

Industrial Site Just South of Fukushima I Power Plant

Image from March 12, 2011.

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Village Two Miles South of Fukushima I Power Plant

Image taken in 2004.

Village Two Miles South of Fukushima I Power Plant

Image from March 12, 2011.

Fukushima II Power Plant

Image taken in 2004. Fukushima II Power Plant is located about 7 miles south of the Fukushima I Power Plant.

Fukushima II Power Plant

Image from March 12, 2011.

Tomioka in Futaba District, Fukushima Prefecture

Image taken in 2004.

Tomioka in Futaba District, Fukushima Prefecture

Image from March 12, 2011.

Central Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Image taken in 2003.

Central Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Image from March 12, 2011.

Ishinomaki

Image taken in 2002.

Ishinomaki

Image from March 12, 2011.

Iwaki Onahama

Image taken in 2005.

Iwaki Onahama

Image from March 12, 2011.

Iwaki Ueda

Image taken in 2005.

Iwaki Ueda

Image from March 12, 2011.

Minamisoma Haranomachi

Image taken in 2003.

Minamisoma Haranomachi

Image from March 12, 2011.

Minamisoma Kashima

Image taken in 2006.

Minamisoma Kashima

Image from March 12, 2011.

Minamisoma Kashimaku

Image taken in 2003.

Minamisoma Kashimaku

Image from March 12, 2011.

Oshika Peninsula Iigohama

Image taken in 2007.

Oshika Peninsula Iigohama

Image from March 12, 2011.

Oshika Peninsula Yagawahama

Image taken in 2007.

Oshika Peninsula Yagawahama

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Airport

Image taken in 2003.

Sendai Airport

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Arahama

Image taken in 2008.

Sendai Arahama

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Fujitsuka

Image taken in 2008.

Sendai Fujitsuka

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Terashima

Image taken in 2003.

Sendai Terashima

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Yamoto

Image taken in 2004.

Sendai Yamoto

Image from March 12, 2011.

Sendai Yuriage

Image taken in 2008.

Sendai Yuriage

Image from March 12, 2011.

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