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Environmental Defense Fund develops methane-hunting satellite

Artist's rendering of MethaneSAT in orbit.

Artist’s rendering of MethaneSAT in orbit. Image Credit: EDF

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US-based non-profit environmental advocacy group, intends to launch a new satellite designed to measure methane emissions worldwide. The new spacecraft, named MethaneSAT, could offer a substantial help for countries and companies in combating global warming.

MethaneSAT project was unveiled by EDF President Fred Krupp on April 11, 2018. He presented a plan to develop a methane-hunting satellite during a TED Talk in Vancouver, British Columbia. MethaneSAT was described by Krupp as the newest chapter in the EDF’s ongoing effort to advance peer-reviewed science focused on oil and gas methane emissions.

“We believe in the power of cutting-edge science to change the world, producing actionable data that can greatly increase businesses’ and government’s ability to make effective policy decisions. Transparent data that shows where there are problems and opportunities creates faster and more effective solutions. MethaneSAT will provide global high-resolution coverage, exceeding anything in orbit or on the drawing board today,” Krupp told Astrowatch.net.

MethaneSAT is planned to be about the size of a small, dorm-size refrigerator. Despite its compact size, the spacecraft would involve significant advances on existing technology, in both the design of the instrument on the satellite and the data processing solutions. This, according to Krupp, is necessary to turn its vast stream of raw data into actionable science that oil and gas companies, governments, investors and others can use to shape and evaluate emissions reduction strategies.

EDF President Fred Krupp introduces MethaneSAT during a TED Talk on April 11, 2018, in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

EDF President Fred Krupp introduces MethaneSAT during a TED Talk on April 11, 2018, in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo Credit: Bret Hartman / TED

“As a core part of the project design, EDF plans to make MethaneSAT data available for free to stakeholders and the public, engaging the oil and gas industry, key governments, institutional and individual investors, and regional and global institutions to ensure sustained long-term data analysis and integration of the results into their thinking on emissions mitigation and verification,” Krupp said.

MethaneSAT is being designed to be capable of identifying and measuring methane emissions from human-made sources worldwide. The satellite would use a 200 kilometer wide path that it would cover at intervals lasting about seven days or less. This should make it feasible to regularly monitor roughly fifty major oil and gas regions.

MethaneSAT would also measure emissions from landfills, and other man-made methane sources.

The spacecraft should be capable of pinpointing the location and magnitude of methane emissions virtually anywhere on the planet. By providing this on-orbit capability, the satellite could prove to be a valuable resource in terms of reducing methane pollution worldwide.

“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the brakes on climate change right now, even as we continue to attack the carbon dioxide emissions most people are more familiar with. By providing reliable, fully transparent data on a worldwide scale, MethaneSAT will help transform a serious climate threat into a crucial opportunity,” Krupp explained.

He added that the MethaneSAT project defies current paradigms in orbital detection as most satellites originate either from research or space organizations. Due to the fact it is designed to focus only on methane, it should be quicker and less expensive to launch than the complex, multi-function satellites built by government organizations.

Krupp plans to launch MethaneSAT in late 2020 or early 2021. In order to achieve this goal, EDF hired Tom Ingersoll, a successful satellite entrepreneur with three decades of experience. Ingersoll was previously CEO of Skybox Imaging and Universal Space Network, a global satellite ground-station services company. Krupp believes that with Ingersoll’s help the project will be completed on schedule.

The EDF has also partnered with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) to complete the basic science and technical strategies for the mission, and expect to complete the final mission requirements so as to set an exact launch schedule later this year.

So far, MethaneSAT has completed phase 0 development, concluding basic science requirement development by Harvard and the SAO, and a conceptual design confirming that the science strategy is sound.

“We have entered phase A, which will result in finalized mission requirements, key design selections, a refined budget, and launch schedule. We expect to complete this phase later this year,” Krupp concluded.

The EDF has stated that a 45 percent reduction in oil and gas methane emissions by 2025 would deliver the same 20-year climate benefit as closing one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants. The organization has noted that it is the fastest, most cost effective thing that can be done to slow climate change.

 

 

 

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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