On 21 January, a fissure opened at the top of Ethiopia’s Erta Ale volcano – one of the few in the world with an active lava lake in its caldera. Volcanologists sent out requests for NASA’s Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) spacecraft to image the eruption, which was large enough to begin reshaping the volcano’s summit.
As it turned out, that spacecraft was already busy collecting data of the lava lake. Alerted by a detection from another satellite, an artificial intelligence (A.I.) system had ordered it to look at the volcano. By the time scientists needed these images, they were already processed and on the ground.