Washington, June 11 : NASA is collaborating with a UK company in developing an early warning system for earthquakes, which would be able to predict major quakes two weeks in advance.
According to a report in Discovery News, the project is based on a controversial theory that may gain traction in light of new findings described in a leaked NASA memo about the May 12 earthquake in China's Sichuan province.
The researchers hope to create a global network of roughly 20 satellites that would scan for telltale activity that some scientists say precedes large earthquakes.
The goal is to create an early warning system that would give up to two weeks notice before a quake anywhere in the world, potentially saving thousands of lives.
Current detection systems can give about a maximum of one minute's notice before a major quake and are prone to false alarms.
"Right now we're in the business of disaster monitoring," said Stuart Eves, a researcher at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, the company behind the proposed satellite network. "We hope to be in the business of disaster avoidance," he added.
The proposed dishwasher-sized satellites could be deployed in two years and would monitor several distinct phenomena, all of which began long ago deep inside the Earth, according to NASA researcher Friedemann Freund, a leading proponent of the theory the project is based on.
At some point, much of Earth's rock has soaked up water and later been exposed to extreme heat and pressure inside the Earth. Those conditions break apart the water and create the electrically conductive crystals that exist inside most rocks as well as byproducts such as oxygen.
According to the theory, as pressure builds before an earthquake, the oxygen molecules inside the rocks undergo chemical reactions, creating a positive electrical charge that radiates out toward the Earth's surface.
The charge creates a subtle fluorescent, infrared glow and a magnetic field one to two weeks before a major earthquake.
That light shines into space, the theory goes, where satellites can register the change.
"Low-resolution thermal cameras aboard the proposed satellites would scan the Earth to detect earthquake precursors," said Eves.
The positively charged magnet creates a dimple, up to 12 miles deep, in the Earth's atmosphere by attracting negatively charged ions from as far away as 372 miles above the surface of the Earth.
To detect this ionospheric dimpling, the satellites would monitor the existing Global Positioning Satellite System with three small GPS antennas on its side. As each GPS satellite comes up over the horizon, its signal would pass through the ionosphere.
Any dimpling would change that signal.