A new generation of methane-sensing satellite technology took a giant leap toward launch this week, as MethaneSAT LLC signed an agreement with Ball Aerospace to design and build the advanced new sensing instrument that sits at the heart of a of a unique mission to protect the Earth’s climate.
The contract, which follows a 10-month competitive process, marks a key milestone in the development of MethaneSAT, a 350kg-class satellite, which will locate and measure methane emissions almost anywhere on Earth.
Methane from human-made sources is responsible for at least a quarter of the warming occurring today. MethaneSAT is designed to enable and encourage companies and countries to reduce their emissions of this potent greenhouse gas by generating data needed to manage leaks and other releases. MethaneSAT will also foster a new level of transparency by making methane emissions data publicly available free of charge.
“This is a sophisticated mission with a truly unique purpose, to reduce emissions faster by making them visible to everyone. MethaneSAT compliments existing satellites, bringing even greater capability to regularly identify and quantify methane sources almost anywhere on the planet,” said Dr. Steven Hamburg, MethaneSAT project co-lead.
Initial focus of the mission will be on the oil and gas industry, which releases about 75 million metric tons of methane each year worldwide. Cutting methane emissions 45% by the year 2025 from the oil and gas industry alone will have the same 20-year climate benefit as shutting down one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Existing satellites can either map methane emissions across large areas or measure them at predetermined spots. MethaneSAT will do both — with high precision on a global scale. The sensitive spectrometer built by Ball Aerospace will measure a narrow part of the shortwave infrared spectrum where methane absorbs light, allowing it to detect concentrations as low as two parts per billion.
High-spatial resolution coupled with a broad, 200-kilometer view path will enable MethaneSAT to quantify even small emission sources over large areas.
To turn a vast stream of data into actionable information, the MethaneSAT team will apply inverse modeling of methane concentration patterns factoring in the effects of winds and other atmospheric conditions in order to determine the location and quantity of both larger point-sources of methane as well as smaller emissions from across larger areas.
Ball Aerospace is providing the MethaneSAT instrument, consisting of two spectrometers, as well as flight integration and testing, launch support, and commissioning services. The company has more than six decades of experience providing leading-edge imaging systems, delivering instruments that span the electromagnetic spectrum for a wide range of government and commercial applications, including remote sensing systems that help predict the weather, map air quality and monitor the Earth’s environment.
“We are excited to bring together our innovation and extensive heritage in building, designing and calibrating instruments in order to make MethaneSAT a success,” said Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Ball Aerospace. “Working with MethaneSAT to enable scientists to study an ever-changing planet is very much in line with our history in earth observation and commitment to sustainability, whether that is high-resolution imaging, weather or ozone and pollution monitoring, Ball is all about science at any scale.”
MethaneSAT LLC is a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund and we have a long, successful record of working with both policymakers and business leaders to create innovative, science-based solutions to critical environmental challenges. The concept for MethaneSAT was first unveiled by EDF President Fred Krupp in an April 2018 TED Talk, as one of the inaugural group of world-changing ideas selected for seed funding by the Audacious Project. It is scheduled to launch in 2022.
The goal of the mission is to facilitate and accelerate efforts by industry, policymakers and other stakeholders to reduce methane emissions. A number of major oil and gas companies have begun to establish methane emission targets, and several countries have either adopted regulations or are in the process of developing them, but together these efforts have only begun to realize the potential positive impacts of reductions on air quality and the climate.
Ball was selected after comprehensive engagement with the MethaneSAT team to establish firm requirements and refine the system design to meet the performance, cost and scheduling objectives of the mission. The key to the effort was jointly developing a system that could meet the demanding science requirements to produce exquisitely calibrated data from a stable, well-characterized instrument. This effort builds on the company’s overall goal of providing high-quality, small instruments to meet growing demand for actionable, trusted data.
In addition to its core team, MethaneSAT has assembled a group of experts from some of the world’s top aerospace organizations, both commercial and government, as well as leading academic experts in remote sensing and atmospheric sciences.
“These are the most seasoned leaders you could bring to a complex endeavor like this one,” said Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project co-lead and a satellite entrepreneur with over 30 years’ experience. “They’ve blazed trails and broken ground, and they know how leading-edge technological ventures work. It’s exactly the team we want helping guide this program.”
The principal scientific investigator on MethaneSAT is Dr. Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard University. He worked with MethaneSAT LLC and a team from Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to establish core mission requirements, design selection criteria and the launch schedule.