MethaneSAT Data Rendering; Credit: MethaneSAT

Brand-new satellite with ‘superpower’ to gauge methane goes live – gallery

MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) non-profit organization, has launched a satellite, said to be the first developed by an environmental non-profit, to glean insight into methane emissions other tools cannot detect, in a bid to pave the way for heightened accountability and faster reductions, focusing first on oil and gas operators as the largest industrial source of the methane menace.  

MethaneSAT Data Rendering; Credit: MethaneSAT

MethaneSAT, which is described as a satellite designed to help protect the Earth’s climate by accelerating reductions of methane, lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket on March 4 to see and quantify total emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutant over wide areas that other satellites do not cover and identify large emitters in places that have been overlooked.

Fred Krupp, EDF’s President, commented: “Cutting methane pollution from fossil fuel operations, agriculture and other sectors is the single fastest way to slow the rate of warming as we continue to decarbonize our energy systems. To do that requires comprehensive data on this pollution on a global scale. MethaneSAT will show us the full scope of the opportunity by tracking emissions to their source.” 

The data from this tool is expected to enable companies and regulators to track emissions, and give stakeholders – citizens, governments, investors, and gas importers – free, near-real-time access to the data at MethaneSAT and Google Earth Engine and the ability to compare the results against emission goals and obligations.

MethaneSAT, which was originally announced in a 2018 TED Talk as part of the TED Audacious Project, is a direct outgrowth of EDF’s efforts, including a series of 16 independent studies that showed methane emissions across the U.S. oil and gas supply chain were 60% higher than EPA estimates at the time.

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While circling the Earth 15 times a day, MethaneSAT will measure changes in methane concentrations as small as three parts per billion, thanks to high sensitivity together with high resolution and a wide field of view, which will enable it to see the whole emissions picture, ushering in a new era of transparency for the industry.

Steven Hamburg, EDF Chief Scientist and MethaneSAT project leader, highlighted: “MethaneSAT’s superpower is the ability to precisely measure methane levels with high resolution over wide areas, including smaller, diffuse sources that account for most emissions in many regions. Knowing how much methane is coming from where and how the rates are changing is essential.” 

Aside from identifying emission sources and rates for a given region, MethaneSAT will make it possible to compare emission loss rates across major oil and gas regions worldwide over time. The analytics, which have been developed specially for this mission, will trace those emissions back to their sources within those target regions.  

Michael R. Bloomberg, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions and Founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, pointed out: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and that’s certainly true when it comes to cutting methane, one of the biggest drivers of climate change.

“Data from this satellite will help us to better measure methane emissions and target their sources, bringing more transparency to the problem, giving companies and investors the information they need to take action, and empowering the public to hold people accountable.” 

The U.S. is among the countries working on slashing their methane footprint. To this end, the Biden administration proposed rules for a fee on excess methane emissions in January 2024, requiring accurate emissions reporting.

European legislation – agreed to in November 2023 – also charts a pathway toward requiring empirical emissions data from gas importers. In addition, Japan and Korea, two of the largest LNG buyers, have launched plans to begin requiring emissions data from suppliers.  

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With methane standards getting increasingly incorporated into national policy and trade agreements, MethaneSAT is set to help ensure targets are being met and make clear where claimed reductions fall short. 

While over 150 countries have joined the Global Methane Pledge to cut their collective methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, more than 50 companies signed up to the Oil & Gas Decarbonization Charter at COP28, committing to eliminate methane emissions and routine flaring.   

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The combined mission team for this satellite – built in Colorado by the Space & Mission Systems unit of BAE Systems and Blue Canyon Technologies, has over 70 experts worldwide with experience in spaceflight, remote sensing, and data analytics.  

Commenting on MethaneSAT, Neil Poxon, CEO of Oxford Flow, said: “To limit global warming to 1.5°C, we must reduce current methane emission levels by 75%, necessitating an almost instant removal of millions of tonnes of fugitive emissions. Flaring plays a considerable role, yet it is a long-term problem requiring management and legislation at a government or country level. However, there exists a universal ‘quick fix’ – valves.

“Valves are predicted to be responsible for around 60% of fugitive emissions. By retrofitting existing valves and employing only solutions that can guarantee zero emissions, we can make a significant impact in a short space of time. To enable substantial change quickly, we must consider fast and cost-effective measures that can be enacted now – because even if we address the largest known ‘problems’ over the long term, smaller ones, like leaking valves, will persist.”

Moreover, MethaneSAT was brought to life in partnership with the Government of New Zealand and with the support of EDF donors: the Bezos Earth Fund, Arnold Ventures, the Robertson Foundation, and the TED Audacious Project. In addition to EDF, the list of MethaneSAT partners includes Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and the New Zealand Space Agency.

“We have consistently seen the power of strong data to win robust regulatory safeguards and better operating practices in the industry. Good science lays the groundwork for better decisions,” emphasized Mark Brownstein, EDF’s Senior Vice President of Energy Transition.