Posted inNews

Cryogenics specialist orders first satellite for detecting methane leaks

PARIS -- Space activity among European governments in 2006 was notable for both what happened and what did not happen.

TAMPA, Fla. — Absolut Group, a French cryogenic technology provider, said Dec. 7 it has ordered a demo nanosatellite for a constellation that would use sensors at very low temperatures to detect greenhouse gas leaks.

The company’s newly created Absolut Sensing subsidiary ordered the chassis for a 16U satellite it calls Gen1 from Lithuania’s NanoAvionics for a launch in early 2024.

The size of 16 cubesats, Gen1 would test a cryogenic sensor Absolut is developing for detecting smaller methane leaks, typically from oil and gas companies, to help in the fight against climate change.

Operating at very low temperatures, Absolut Sensing CEO Tristan Laurent said its sensor could use higher infrared spectrum bands to detect local releases of methane at a threshold of about 50 kilograms per hour.

GHGSat, Satlantis, and others building out similar methane-monitoring businesses are limited to around 100 kilograms per hour without cryogenically cooled sensors, according to Laurent.

“There has been one cryogenics sensor developed up until now by NASA,” he said, which “succeeded from a quality of the measurement perspective [but is] extremely hard to manufacture.”

Absolut Sensing aims to miniaturize cryogenic hardware its parent group has provided organizations, including Europe’s meteorological satellite agency Eumetsat, to deploy at least 24 satellites for monitoring greenhouse gases.

This number is needed to achieve “daily revisits on what we call the priority sites,” Laurent said, a “constantly evolving map of the regions worldwide that have industrial sites that emit constantly, or are likely to emit, a lot of methane.”

While most of the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry are controlled, he said leaks still pose significant financial and environmental costs.

“And there’s a huge difference between getting the problem fixed in one day versus a week,” he added.

Absolut Sensing aims to deploy the first 12 satellites dedicated to measuring methane by 2025. 

The rest of the constellation would focus on keeping tabs on other greenhouse gases, with six for carbon dioxide and six for nitrous oxide slated for 2026 and 2027, respectively.

Laurent said each satellite would have artificial intelligence software to analyze sensors from low Earth orbit to enable near-real-time detection.

In September, Absolut announced a contract enabling the European Space Agency to assess the company’s quality and validation protocols, with the aim of potentially procuring data and analytics under the European Union’s Copernicus program.

Environmental business

NanoAvionics is providing payload integration, testing, and other services as part of its contract for Gen1, including satellite operations once it is in orbit.

A launch provider has not yet been selected for the satellite, and Absolut is still deciding who will build and deploy the rest of its proposed constellation.

“Remote sensing applications make up a large part of our customer base,” NanoAvionics CEO Vytenis Buzas said, and the manufacturer sees “a growing trend in infrared imaging” as more companies take advantage of lower costs to access space.

“These Earth observation missions typically have great thermal management, pointing accuracy, and stability demands,” Buzas noted.

In response to the anticipated demand, he said NanoAvionics has optimized its modular satellite designs, attitude determination, and control systems to “accommodate many commercial imaging payloads for quick integration.”

He added: “We even see demand coming from companies that own large ground-based infrastructure. They are beginning to see how small satellites in low Earth orbit can help them to monitor cost-efficiently their ground-based assets from space.”

French investment firm VOL-V, Absolut’s main financial backer, recently injected 12 million euros ($13 million) into the company to support its expansion plans.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously,...