A group of 30 engineering students in Chennai, India, are undertaking the ultimate student project: to build a satellite and launch it, to test a theory, and possibly help predict potentially devastating earthquakes.

According to Deutsche Welle, the project to develop a satellite with the capability to detect early seismic activity began in January 2010 and has since begun to take shape at the Indian Institute of Technology. The satellite, called IITMSAT, weighs less than 33 pounds, and unlike most satellites, is aimed to orbit the Earth at a height of 600 to 800 Kilometers, just below the Van Allen radiation belt.

“We are specifically trying to measure particle fluxes precipitated from the inner Van Allen belt and to correlate [this data] with other phenomena, such as seismic events, solar flares and lightning storms,” says Akshay Gulati, one of the students who began the project. He has since graduated and is now a project officer.

In doing so, the theory is that the satellite will be able to predict an earthquake based in ultra-low frequency waves emitted from the ground before the earthquake begins.

These ultra-low frequency waves, says Gulati, interact with the Van Allen belt, a layer of charged particles more than 1,000 kilometers above the Earth.

This is not the first time that a satellite mission of this nature has been attempted.

In 2012, NASA launched 2 satellites into the Van Allen belt to study this theory. The satellites we able to detect particle precipitation at least four days before an earthquake. However, later research proved the data to lack consistency.

The Indian project hopes to take NASA’s research a step further.

“We believe this is the first such mission, with a detector of this size – about 500 square centimeters – just below the Van Allen belt, with the specific purpose of measuring protons and electrons,” says Professor David Koilpillai, one of the project mentors.

The students aim to launch the satellite next year. If the project is successful, the satellite design could qualify for use by larger research organizations and has the potential to become a prototype for future nano-satellite standards.

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