Repurposing NASA’s tech used to search for life on Mars to track oil & gas methane emissions

As climate change thrusts the need for the transition to low-carbon and green energy into the limelight, many, including the International Energy Agency (IEA), believe that curbing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is one of the cheapest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, drone and space age technology, which was first developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to search for life on Mars, will now be used to detect offshore methane emissions.


Measuring methane emissions in offshore environments is seen as a difficult task, with methods using satellites and aircraft having low success rates due to backscatter from water, clouds being in the field of view, and a lack of resolution required to quantify one asset in a region where there are multiple in proximity. To tackle this, SeekOps, a U.S.-based sensor company, has deployed its drone-agnostic SeekIR solution, which uses technology initially created for the Mars Curiosity Rover, to gauge emissions across the North Sea.

Brendan Smith, SeekOps Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, commented: “With political, environmental, and social pressures building, oil and gas operators are searching for ways to effectively reduce methane emissions. This forward-thinking solution combines two cutting-edge pieces of technology to provide companies with a modern and effective means of measuring their offshore methane emissions.” 

Furthermore, high spatiotemporal methane emission measurement surveys have been conducted in an offshore environment by mounting an in-situ tunable diode laser absorption spectrometer (TDLAS) on a drone. The company perceives this to be an energy sector first.

The TLDAS technology was first developed by NASA’s JPL to look for evidence of microbial life and was extremely sensitive to methane enhancements. However, it has been adapted for use across the energy sector and has been validated by the Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Centre (METEC) in Colorado. 

Moreover, SeekOps highlights that the system now allows for “cost-effective, safe, and accurate” methane emissions quantification and overcomes challenges posed by fixed-wing crewed and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) which have restrictive flight patterns.  

The NASA JPL’s drone and space age technology, which is being used to detect offshore methane emissions, will be showcased at SPE Offshore Europe 2023 together with findings from surveys of five offshore assets, collecting both methane concentration and atmospheric conditions such as temperature, pressure, and wind vector data.

Kamel Ben-Naceur, SPE Offshore Europe Conference Chairman 2023, remarked: “As the energy transition ramps up pace, the development and adaptation of technologies to aid in the process will be key. This technical session will highlight a system that could have a potentially revolutionary impact on how methane emissions are measured offshore.” 

According to the International Energy Agency, the spending required to cut methane emissions and make the $100 billion investment in technologies needed to achieve this reduction is less than 3 per cent of the income accrued by oil and gas companies worldwide last year. The global energy industry was responsible for 135 million tonnes of methane released into the atmosphere in 2022, only slightly below the record highs seen in 2019.

Related Article

With around 260 billion cubic metres (bcm) of methane lost to the atmosphere each year from oil and gas operations, the energy sector currently accounts for around 40 per cent of total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture.

Follow Offshore Energy’s Fossil Energy market on social media channels: