Seeing through the Earth's crust, clearlyThe last frontier: DARPA wants to make the Earth's crust transparent

Published 10 March 2010

Seeing through the Earth’s would allow the development of tools to protect civilian populations from the ravages of natural disasters; these same tools could be used for military purposes against enemies — detecting, targeting, and destroying hard and buried underground facility (UGF) targets

DARPA, that intellectually restless agency where, according to Lewis Page, they “believe it is better to invent a head-mounted multispectral imaging device than curse the darkness,” is pushing the envelope again. The agency has been interested in mastering — some would say lording over — the nature for years now. The agency talked about planet hacking and influencing enemy climate (aka “weather war”), and the agency still wants to harness the power of lightning.

Katie Drummond writes that this year the agency has an agenda which is no less ambitious. As part of its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, DARPA is launching the Transparent Earth project. The agency will invest $4 million into the creation of real-time, 3-D maps that display “the physical, chemical and dynamic properties of the earth down to 5 kilometer depth.”

Drummond notes that at first, the idea does not sound all that impressive. The earth is more than 3,500 miles deep, from crust to core, so DARPA’s plan would not do much more than scratch at the surface. Geologists and geophysicists, however, still know very little about the day-to-day goings-on underground, even at a depth as shallow as 5 km. The deepest drilling of the planet was a Soviet hole on the Kola Peninsula, which took nineteen years and made it around 7.5 miles into the crust, and even NASA still uses land-based GPS signals to predict volcanic eruptions.

Now, rather than a massive drilling project, DARPA wants to harness innovations in sensor technology to develop a constantly updating model of planetary activity. The project will use sensors to detect “natural indicators of subsurface activity,” and then take advantage of mathematical algorithms designed to estimate various natural earthly phenomena, including geophysical turbulence and shifting tectonic plates.

Drummond writes that algorithms are already used in planetary mapping and predictive science, but adding high-tech sensors would provide a constant stream of new data. “This kind of accuracy could have serious planetary implications: Changes in the earth’s crust can explain and predict volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and even the formation of mountain ranges,” she writes.

After they successfully combine sensors and mathematics, DARPA’s ultimate goal would put even NASA’s satellite footage to shame: A global three-dimensional picture of the earth’s subsurface with variable spatial, temporal, and information resolution, allowing changes at local scales to propagate through both physical models and proximity rules to update the global picture.

So maybe DARPA wants to protect civilian populations from the ravages of natural disasters, Drummond writes. These same tools, however, could be used for military purposes against enemies, Drummond quotes one unnamed geoscientist to say. “All of my ’science is good!’ tree-hugging comments aside, what this program is probably really about is detecting, targeting, and destroying hard and buried underground facility (UGF) targets,” the geoscientist said.

Whatever DARPA’s intention, they want their transparent earth sooner rather than later: The agency anticipates that the new 3-D models will be available to the Army, Air Force, special operations and intelligence agencies by 2015,’ Drummond concludes.