A future network of satellites orbiting the earth may be able to detect an impending earthquake by monitoring our planet’s ionosphere.
The project is based on a controversial theory that may have gained support in light of new findings relating to last month’s Sichuan province earthquake.
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 major earthquake occurs.
Current detection systems can give a maximum of one minute’s notice and are prone to false alarms.
“Right now we’re in the business of disaster monitoring,” says Dr 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,” says Eves.
The proposed dishwasher-sized satellites could be deployed in two year’s time, and would monitor several distinct phenomena, says NASA researcher Dr Friedemann Freund, a leading proponent of the theory the project is based on.
The theory suggests that much of earth’s rock has soaked up water, which has 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.
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.
“It’s similar to how an electrical charge radiates through a battery,” says Freund.
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, says Eves.
The positively charged magnet creates a dimple, up to 20 kilometres deep, in the earth’s atmosphere by attracting negatively charged ions from as far away as 600 kilometres 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.
The theory is not without skeptics.
“As far as I know, there is no published research to suggest that this will work,” says Dr Mike Blanpied, who is with the United States Geologic Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program
But this doesn’t deter the researchers.
Freund has already put US$1 million of his own money into the satellite project.
Other proponents expect new research confirming their theory will appear soon, based on a leaked memo written by Dr Dimitar Ouzounov, a NASA-funded researcher at George Mason University. .On 2 May 2008, Ouzounov was looking for these same infrared light sources and found one over Sichuan province. Ouzounov sent a memo to colleagues reporting his finding, which he said was later leaked to the press.
On 12 May a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck the Chinese province, killing tens of thousands of people.
Ouzounov and his colleagues are currently preparing a paper detailing the Sichuan event.
They hope it will be accepted for publication later this year.