Methane-spotting satellite that gives true readings of industry emissions hits skies in 2024

Potent greenhouse gas even worse for climate than too much carbon dioxide

A methane tracking satellite that can calculate emissions of this potent greenhouse gas with extreme accuracy is due to go into operation next year, following the successful testing of its instrumentation aboard a jet aircraft.

MethaneSAT is the name of the hardware and also the organization that has developed it, the latter being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping combat climate change.

The org says the MethaneSAT satellite is now undergoing final testing and is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket early next year.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and the comparative impact of it is a whopping 28 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, even though it persists in the atmosphere for a much shorter period.

The sensitive imaging spectrometer instruments used to detect methane have also been deployed and tested aboard a jet aircraft that will use them to measure and track methane from sources such as oil and gas operations across North America.

Dubbed MethaneAIR, the data from this will augment orbital data collection by MethaneSAT, the organization said, and the data from both instruments will be available at no cost.

The org says on its website: "MethaneSAT will locate and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on Earth and track progress over time. The data will enable both companies and countries to identify, manage and reduce their emissions, and allow investors, gas buyers and the public to see and compare results."

MethaneAIR was developed jointly by MethaneSAT, Environmental Defense Fund, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. It is carried by a leased aircraft adapted and operated by IO Aerospace.

The data from MethaneAIR is intended to provide detailed methane emissions information covering the US, a country that supplies significant amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – which is typically 85 to 95 percent methane - to other regions, MethaneSAT states. In particular, it claims the EU is now the main destination for American LNG exports of 420 million cubic meters per day.

This places a responsibility on the EU to reduce methane pollution by tackling emissions from imported fossil fuels, according to MethaneSAT.

"For fossil fuel importers like the European Union, this new level of transparency will catalyse methane mitigation through more informed buying decisions and the ability to track progress towards the EU’s climate goals," claimed Flavia Sollazzo, senior director of energy transition at Environmental Defense Fund Europe in a statement.

The imaging spectrometers of MethaneAIR and MethaneSAT will be capable of measuring methane in the atmosphere with much greater sensitivity, making it possible to determine total methane emissions over wide areas, the organization says. This will allow it to generate detailed maps of both large sources and the many smaller ones down to three parts per billion.

According to atmospheric scientist Steven Wofsy, MethaneSAT is set to be a more precise instrument than other methane-sensing satellites that have come before, allowing scientists to track emissions to their sources.

Wofsy, who is set to be MethaneSAT’s principal investigator, told The Harvard Gazette that the project would also help to cut methane wasted by leaks, which provides a financial incentive for corporations to cooperate in halting them.

MethaneSAT will not be the only player in this game, with more than two dozen high-resolution methane detecting satellites expected to be in orbit by the end of this year.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, another nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainability, issued a report on methane-detecting satellites earlier this year. It contrasted the European Space Agency’s TROPOMI, which can monitor an entire region or country, with the GHGSat-C1 satellite designed to provide high-resolution monitoring of individual industrial facilities.

MethaneSat will sit somewhere between the two, it said, providing high-resolution coverage of methane emissions regionally as well as down to the level of individual oil and gas facilities. ®

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