GHGSat's reveals methane concentrations around the world through Spectra, an online platform. Credit: GHGSat screenshot

SAN FRANCISCO – Satellites set to launch in 2024 will dramatically increase the international community’s ability to detect atmospheric methane. Still, far more data will be needed to reach international goals to curb emissions.

“We need to understand where these emissions are around the globe,” said Steven Hamburg, Environmental Defense Fund chief scientist.

Plus, it’s necessary to quantify methane emissions and monitor changes over time, panelists said during a Jan. 21 SpaceNews webinar on methane monitoring.

Planet is preparing to launch the Tanager-1 satellite for the Carbon Mapper Coalition.
Planet is preparing to launch the Tanager-1 satellite for the Carbon Mapper Coalition. Credit: Planet

Weather Systems

Government sensors like Tropomi, an instrument on the European Space Agency-European Commission Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, and Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellites provide extensive data. Commercial airborne and space-based sensors also help.

Canada’s GHGSat, for example, monitors industrial greenhouse gas facilities with a constellation of 12 satellites. GHGSat shares data with NASA, ESA, the United Nations and the oil and gas industry.

In contrast to the current piecemeal approach, what’s needed is something more like the national weather systems around the globe, said Riley Duren, University of Arizona research scientist and CEO of Carbon Mapper, a nonprofit focused on measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

Nationals weather systems combine data from ground, airborne and space-based sensors to provide “continuous operational insight of what’s happening with weather,” Duren said.

No Clear Picture

Greenhouse gas monitoring has not received the same resources.

“We have benefited from over a decade of dramatic advances in research and technology that have demonstrated that these remote-sensing technologies provide actual data, but they’re not yet deployed at scale,” Duren said.

As a result, no one has a clear picture of global methane emissions.

“We’ve got a pair of glasses, but they’re pretty fuzzy,” said Hamburg, CEO of MethaneSAT LLC. MethaneSAT is an Environmental Defense Fund affiliate that locates, measures and tracks methane emissions with airborne sensors and a satellite set to launch in 2024.  

In the next year or two, data from new and existing satellites will “allow us to put on a much higher-quality set of glasses,” Hamburg said.

Artist’s render of MethaneSAT Credit: Ball Aerospace Corp.

Satellites on Deck

Still, the challenge is multifaceted. It’s important to map global emissions to reveal the total quantity of atmospheric methane, its distribution and to track changes over time. In addition, granular data is needed to reveal methane emissions coming from individual facilities or places “so that we can fix or reduce those emissions,” Hamburg said.

Data from new methane-monitoring satellites will help.

MethaneSAT’s space-based instrument will reveal regional-scale emissions and identify large methane sources.

Also on deck is the Tanager-1 satellite with a hyperspectral sensor to pinpoint, quantify and track point sources of methane and carbon dioxide. And NASA may extend the operation of the Earth Ventures-Instrument (EVI-4) Mission imaging spectrometer on the International Space Station, which has proven to be surprisingly adept at greenhouse gas monitoring.

This methane plume from a landfill south of Tehran, Iran, was spotted in August 2022 using NASA’s EMIT high-resolution imaging spectrometer on the International Space Station. An interactive map shows the more than 800 point-source emitters of methane and carbon dioxide found with EMIT. Credit: NASA/JPL–CALTECH

Japan is scheduled to launch an infrared spectrometer to measure monthly mean concentrations of greenhouse gases, calculate national anthropogenic greenhouse gas inventories and survey large emission sources like power plants.

All Hands on Deck

Researchers are finding innovative ways to use existing satellite sensors as well.

“Harvard University developed a simple algorithm to derive methane from our geostationary satellite imagers,” said Shobha Kondragunta, aerosols and atmospheric composition science team lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Satellite and Information Service. “We can take advantage of these imagers’ shortwave infrared observations to look at the methane leaks from facilities. One huge advantage of this technique, if the promise is realized, is we get direct emissions or fluxes from our imagers because our geostationary satellites take snapshots every five minutes or 10 minutes.”

All these tools are helpful.

“In tackling methane and greenhouse gas mitigation and monitoring in general, there’s a need for a large toolbox because the emissions that we’re trying to help people reduce and understand and track and quantify occur across a wide range of scales,” Duren said. “And there is a need for multiple tools in that toolbox.”

In spite of recent progress, it will take a coalition of government agencies working with nongovernmental organizations and companies “to tackle the grand challenge here: comprehensive, sustained, operational monitoring to drive methane and CO2 emission reductions globally,” Duren 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...