Scientists have launched a project that they hope could one day help save thousands of lives by predicting when and where earthquakes will happen. A group of British and Russian scientists signed an agreement to work together on the project earlier this week in Moscow.
The TwinSat project involves the launch of two satellites - one of which they say is about the size of an old television set and the other smaller than a shoebox - which will orbit the earth a few hundred miles apart.
Data from the satellites will be collated with data from the ground as the scientists try to understand what natural warnings are given prior to earthquakes.
"As stress builds up in the Earth prior to an earthquake, subtle electromagnetic signals are released that can be read from the upper atmosphere," said Professor Alan Smith, Director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College, London, who was in Moscow this week to launch the project.
"We want to try to work out how these signals differ from all the other things that are present at any given time." The two linked satellites will monitor zones with high seismic and volcanic activity, such as Iceland and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia. The project is being run by a team of British and Russian scientists and was heralded "a new milestone in UK-Russia space collaboration" by Professor Smith.
Professor Vitaly Chmyrev, of the Institute of Physics of the Earth in Moscow, one of the Russian partners, said that the possibilities for progress in earthquake research were extremely exciting. He said that the project will "benefit both Russian and British science in addition to making the Earth a safer place".
Professor Chmyrev noted that in the days leading up to the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, satellites picked up electromagnetic signals from the area, but they were only analysed afterwards. This project could be a huge step towards understanding how to read these signals. "Just imagine if we could have accurately predicted the Haiti earthquake a few weeks before," said Professor Chmyrev. "Or if we had predicted the Icelandic volcano eruption that paralysed transport routes for weeks. The potential human and economic benefits are enormous."
Peter Sammonds, Professor of Geophysics at UCL and another member of the project team, said that because the satellites were so small, the technology was relatively cheap. "These satellites are absolutely incredible, you can almost hold them in the palm of your hand," he said. "If the project progresses as we want it to, we'll be able to send up several more of them to increase coverage."
The first satellite launch is planned for 2015, and the team is confident that the project could change the way we understand earthquakes. "It wasn't long ago that if you said there was a chance of predicting earthquakes, people would say you were a charlatan, and not a real scientist," said Professor Chmyrev. "But science moves quickly and I'm absolutely certain that sooner or later we'll be able to make very accurate predictions."