The Advanced Baseline Imager instrument on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Operatioal Environmental Satellite R Series views Earth in 16 spectral bands. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Update: The study on geostationary monitoring of large methane sources was published in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An earlier version of this article linked to a preprint.

BALTIMORE – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) constellation could provide valuable data on methane emissions.

With imagery from the GOES Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), researchers identified a large natural gas pipeline release and quantified total emissions. By comparing imagery captured every five minutes, the researchers showed how emissions changed over time and determined the duration of the leak.

NOAA has not yet tested the algorithm, but “the potential for this technique is enormous,” Shobha Kondragunta, Aerosols and Atmospheric Composition science team lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Satellite and Information Service, said Jan. 21 in a SpaceNews webinar on methane monitoring.

The goal of mitigating methane emissions has risen to the top of the climate agenda. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide in its atmospheric warming potential. Plus, with the right tools, methane leaks can be rapidly identified and halted.

Frequent Observations

Most government satellites that spot methane emissions travel in low-Earth orbit, providing few opportunities to revisit targets multiple times per day. In contrast, the Advanced Baseline Imagers on NOAA’s GOES-East and GOES-West satellites work together to observe the Americas and surrounding oceans every 10 minutes. Views of the continental U.S. and parts of Canada and Mexico are available every five minutes.

Harvard University, ETH Zurich, the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the United Nation’s International Methane Emissions Observatory conducted the research on ABI’s utility for methane leaks. Researchers focused on emissions in 2019 from a natural gas pipeline in Durango, Mexico. The leak was detected at the time by Tropomi, an instrument on the European Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite.

With shortwave infrared data from ABI, researchers determined that the release lasted three hours. During the release, 260 to 550 metric tons of methane were released per hour. The total amount of methane emitted, 1,130 to 1,380 metric tons, is “enough to power 3,600–4,400 Mexican urban households for a year,” according to the paper, “Geostationary satellite observations of extreme and transient methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure.”

“Our results demonstrate the unique value of geostationary satellite instruments for detecting extreme and brief methane emission events, quantifying emissions from variable point sources, and precisely determining source locations,” according to the study published Dec. 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Enhanced Capabilities

The potential for geostationary satellite imagers to spot significant methane emissions “is a new development,” said Kondragunta. Working with the researchers, “we will try to bring some of those capabilities to NOAA,” she added.

ABI, the GOES primary instrument, gathers data at resolutions between 0.5 and 2 kilometers per pixel in 16 spectral bands.

While ABI’s potential application for methane monitoring is a new, “it’s not the first time that ABI capabilities have proven to be useful in a new observational area that has a high impact,” Shikha Ganguly, L3Harris Technologies general manager for weather, space and airborne systems, told SpaceNews at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting here. “We’re excited that there’s another area being explored to tap into some more utility there.”

ABI’s successor, the GeoXO imager, will have even greater observational capabilities. Seven of ABI’s 16 channels will have improved resolution. L3Harris is developing the new imager under a $765.5 million contract awarded in March 2023.

“We will continue to enhance our ability to bring these observations to tracking phenomena like this,” Ganguly said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...