By Justin Worland
November 20, 2015

Wildfires strike suddenly and unexpectedly, destroying homes, taking lives and costing billions of dollars every year. Now, scientists say that new satellite technology developed by NASA will help predict where fires will strike next.

The system, known as FireSat, uses infrared sensors to identify wildfires when they have grown to be at least 35 to 50 feet wide, according to a NASA press release. That area may sound large, but it pales in comparison to the size of wildfires that can destroy millions of acres. Detection by the system occurs within 15 minutes of the beginning of a fire.

“Delays in detection can lead to rapid escalation of a fire, and dramatic growth of the cost of suppression,” Robert Staehle, lead designer of FireSat at JPL, said in a press release. “The system we envision will work day and night for fires anywhere in the world.”

Read More: This Technology Could Help Predict Where Wildfires Strike Next

NASA has used satellites to track wildfires for years, but the new system marks a vast improvement in imaging capability. Existing satellite technology can transmit fire images a few times a day. The new technology, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), transmits an image once a minute, according to the press release. JPL hopes it will be fully operational by 2018.

Learning about a fire exactly when it starts can make a dramatic difference in preventing its rapid expansion. The 2014 King Fire, for instance, spread across California forest land 10 miles in one afternoon. It would eventually burn nearly 100,000 acres of land.

FireSat is far from the only technology in the works that helps predict wildfires. Another NASA-funded project incorporates weather and topography information, among other things, to determine how a wildfire is likely to spread across a given area.

 

 

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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