Private methane-watching smallsat MethaneSAT taps SpaceX for late 2022 rideshare

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A privately funded smallsat project is underway intended to slow the pace of climate change by providing global, high-resolution detection and quantification of methane emissions around the world.

In 2018, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), headquartered in New York City, unveiled the idea for MethaneSAT, an endeavor to support and enable climate action. As a compact orbital platform, the spacecraft will chart and catalog methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet as well as measure emissions from other human-generated methane sources, including agriculture.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the first 20 years after it is emitted.

Launch window

MethaneSAT, LLC, a subsidiary of the nonprofit EDF, is leading the design and building of the smallsat and its attendant data-handling infrastructure.

It was announced Jan. 13 by the MethaneSAT group that they have signed a contract with SpaceX to launch the satellite as part of a Falcon 9 rideshare mission slated for no earlier than Oct. 1, 2022.

MethaneSAT is a smallsat built to spot and gauge methane emissions that are responsible for more than 25% of global warming. Credit: MethaneSAT, LLC

Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project director, said the spacecraft is making good progress. “We are currently on schedule to be ‘launch ready’ by the end of September 2022. We still hold our critical path. That’s not to say we won’t have some hiccups, but right now, everything is going very well,” he told SpaceNews.

Building and launching the spacecraft will cost $88 million, according to Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for MethaneSat.

“In addition to that is the data platform, as well as the advocacy that will be associated with using the data, ensuring that it’s impactful,” Hamburg said.

The spacecraft, which is designed to last two years but will carry enough fuel for five years or more of operations, will also carry the highest-precision methane instrument ever designed, Hamburg said.

According to the EDF, human-produced methane emissions are responsible for more than 25 percent of global warming the planet is now experiencing. The group calculates that reducing global oil and gas methane emissions 45 percent by 2025, an EDF stated goal, would deliver the same near-term benefit to the climate as closing 1,300 coal-fired power plants.

MethaneSAT is being designed to map and measure oil and gas methane emissions worldwide, including roughly 50 major oil and gas regions accounting for more than 80 percent of global production.

Design review

Blue Canyon Technologies of Lafayette, Colorado, is building the spacecraft bus. The smallsat-provider was acquired late last December by Raytheon Technologies. The 350-kilogram satellite uses Blue Canyon’s X-SAT Saturn-Class bus designed to maximize the volume, mass and power available for the methane measuring instrument.

Lorie Booth, program manager at Blue Canyon Technologies, said the MethaneSAT bus has completed its critical design review phase and is now qualifying new designs and executing on component assembly, preparing for bus integration in the spring of 2021. The bus test campaign will kick off in the second quarter of 2021, she said, with an expected bus delivery to Ball Aerospace counterpart for payload integration in late third quarter of 2021.

Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace designed MethaneSAT’s high-performance spectrometer-based methane sensing system to tease out a narrow part of the shortwave infrared spectrum where methane absorbs light.

The compact satellite is to pinpoint the location and magnitude of methane emissions virtually anywhere on Earth and can cover a 260-kilometer field of view. MethaneSAT’s high-resolution sensor is designed to observe areas as small as 100 x 400 meters with the ability to accurately spot differences in methane levels as small as two parts per billion.

In September, MethaneSAT officials said the project completed a critical design review for both the mission’s remote sensing instrument and the spacecraft platform bus and was entering the production stage. The review involved experts who make up MethaneSAT’s technical advisory group, headed by Joe Rothenberg, former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the project’s science advisory group, led by Dan McCleese, former chief scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Data-crunching

The MethaneSAT project is automating the data-crunching process to create a speedy and steady flow of real-time information in a range of packages and formats tailored to enable industry, regulators and the public to track emissions and document reductions.

Tom Melendez, senior engineering director of data products for MethaneSAT, said gathering and then shaping the satellite-gleaned information is not a trivial matter. That data is first downlinked via X-band to the KSAT Lite, a small-aperture global ground network, then to a cloud-based infrastructure and platform. Algorithms designed by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are to be used to build the data acquisition and analysis strategy.

“The magnitude of the data we’re dealing with is about a petabyte a year of data,” Melendez said. The MethaneSAT data processing infrastructure is designed to transform the information into a useful, actionable product in a timely manner, he said.

A partnership with New Zealand has been formed to take on the role of mission management. A mission operations control center will include a physical facility, hosted at a New Zealand university.

Data gathered from MethaneSAT will be available free for anyone to use.

New era

MethaneSAT demonstrates a new era of environmental information, said Alison Parker, senior program associate for the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Government no longer controls the gathering and use of environmental data, she said.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, announces go-ahead for MethaneSAT during a TED Talk in 2018. Credit: Environmental Defense Fund/TED Talks

“These types of efforts serve to broaden how we think about environmental information and who can participate and benefit from it, and I think we will be seeing more and different ways that this continues to play out,” Parker told SpaceNews.

“You could argue that the MethaneSAT is a form of citizen science,” Parker added, “where members of the public participate in gathering of scientific information, or you could argue that it’s a different mechanism than citizen science but towards the same end, towards broadening how the public contributes to and interacts with environmental information.”

Data-to-action pipeline

MethaneSAT’s Hamburg characterized the project as being in a different league than citizen science. Call it “civil society science,” he said, being driven by philanthropic donations to accelerate the application of evolving technology to solve a critical global problem.

“MethaneSAT draws upon the rapidly advancing technology in remote sensing to solve the pressing problems of the world, more quickly, more effectively, with greater impact than was possible before,” Hamburg said. “We’re trying to catalyze a revolution to recognize that we need more data, the right data, to be able to affect the changes we need.”

Is the privately-backed MethaneSAT idea a forerunner of things to come? Ingersoll said he’s already been approached by two other organizations keen on their own satellite-aided mission.

The timing of MethaneSAT seems fitting given the incoming Biden administration’s campaign promise of putting in place aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations. “It’s clearly one of his high priorities,” said Hamburg. “MethaneSAT will feed directly to the ability of developing methane mitigation strategies and enforcement.”

Hamburg said that MethaneSAT is meant to provide and present the information it gathers in a way that is useful for a diversity of communities. “It’s the full data-to-action pipeline with high-quality data coming out in a policy-relevant format,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 18, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.