An illustration of MethaneSAT, a small satellite designed to track methane emissions from human activities. The spacecraft's design is still under development. Credit: EDF

SEATTLE — The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has awarded contracts to Ball Aerospace and Space Systems Loral to develop designs for a privately funded satellite to track methane emissions.

EDF announced Jan. 10 that the two companies had received study contracts, with an overall value of $1.5 million, to advance concepts for MethaneSAT, a spacecraft designed to monitor human-generated methane emissions worldwide. EDF said it selected the two companies from nearly two dozen firms that expressed an interest in the project.

The companies will spend the next several months refining their designs for MethaneSAT. EDF plans to then choose one of the companies to build the spacecraft for launch in 2021, but didn’t specify when that downselect would take place.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with the some of the most capable companies in the space industry,” Tom Ingersoll, the project manager for MethaneSAT at EDL and former chief executive of Skybox Imaging, in a statement. “Ball and SSL are the two we feel are best positioned to make this challenging mission a success.”

SSL, a division of Maxar Technologies, said in a separate statement it will work with DigitalGlobe, also owned by Maxar, on its MethaneSAT bid, with DigitalGlobe providing technical input on the satellite’s payload and guidance on the overall mission plan. SSL cited its growing experience in small satelites, such as the series of SkySat spacecraft for the former Skybox Imaging, now part of Planet.

EDF announced plans to develop MethaneSAT in April 2018. The spacecraft is intended to monitor emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas from 50 major oil and gas regions that account for more than 80 percent of global methane production, revisiting them on intervals of seven days or less. EDF plans to make the data freely available.

“Significant reductions in oil and gas methane emissions now can materially lower the rate of global temperature rise in our lifetime. MethaneSAT will give us the data we need to seize this moment,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of EDF’s energy program, in the statement.

Besides Ingersoll, EDF has brought in other space industry experts to advise the group on MethaneSAT. Dan McCleese, former chief scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, leads the science advisory group for the mission. Joe Rothenberg, former director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, chairs the technical advisory group. Rothenberg also worked as director of engineering and operations for Terra Bella, the name given to Skybox Imaging after its acquisition by Google in 2014.

However, EDF has provided few details about how much MethaneSAT will cost or how it will be funded. The project received last year a grant from a new initiative called The Audacious Project, although the size of the award was not disclosed. An EDF spokesman did not respond to an inquiry Jan. 10 about the financial status of the project.

MethaneSAT is one of several Earth science missions being done outside of space agencies. Canadian company GHGSat announced it September it had raised $10 million to support development of satellites for monitoring greenhouse gases. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who retired this month, announced in September an initiative to develop a greenhouse gas satellite in cooperation with Planet.

Space agencies say they welcome those new efforts, as long as the data and how they’re calibrated are shared. “If we have free and open exchange of data, and insight into the calibration and validation and characterization, all comers, from the commercial sector, from sub-national organizations, from NGOs, et cetera, can only help to advance the science,” said Mike Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, during a panel session at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany in October.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...