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Once in orbit, the MethaneSAT will circle the planet 15 times per day. Its mission: to measure the quantity of methane coming from oil and gas installations.

A satellite to track methane leaks

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A reproduction of the MethaneSAT, a new satellite whose mission will be to identify methane emissions from the oil and gas industry from space.

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A new satellite with “unprecedented” precision took flight Monday with a mission to closely monitor methane emissions from oil and gas companies.

After successfully taking off from the Vandenberg military base in California, the satellite will have to orbit the planet and complete 15 revolutions per day in search of an invisible enemy: methane.

This greenhouse gas, with a warming potential 80 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period, escapes from oil and gas facilities, farms and landfills. .

Colorless and odorless, methane is the main element in the composition of natural gas, a fossil energy source used to power industrial complexes and to heat homes. Throughout the production chain, leaks occur and the gas ends up in the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

These emissions are responsible for approximately 30% of the rise in temperature across the globe.

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Often underestimated, methane emissions are difficult to measure. Oil and gas companies can install sensors or use drones or planes to fly over facilities, but the data collected is incomplete and varies from one source to another.

In order to offer the most accurate portrait possible, the MethaneSAT relies on cutting-edge technology which allows it to detect the concentrations of this gas over a vast territory , with an unprecedented level of precision, according to Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the NGO behind the device.

The satellite is designed to detect changes in gas concentrations in the atmosphere as small as three parts per billion.

Although Satellite monitoring systems already exist to measure GHG emissions; these are more effective in targeting a specific region. MethaneSAT will have the capacity to detect leaks from large emitters that other satellites are not able to detect, indicates EDF.

The superpower of the MethaneSAT lies in its ability to precisely measure methane levels with high resolution on large areas, including the smaller, diffuse sources that account for most emissions in many regions.

A quote from Steven Hamburg, EDF Chief Scientist and MethaneSAT Project Manager

To calculate the quantity of methane emissions in a given region and monitor its evolution over time, EDF has developed algorithms in collaboration with Google.

The project also brings together nearly 70 experts, including engineers and scientists from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the New Zealand Space Agency.

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MethaneSAT will not be the only satellite capable of detecting methane in orbit, but it will fill the void left by satellites used to monitor specific regions, according to its designers.

Because MethaneSAT's coverage is broader in space and time than previous satellites, it will be more likely to detect large leaks, said Daniel Horen Greenford, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in geography and studies. environmental companies and author of a report on methane leaks caused by liquefied natural gas.

The MethaneSAT stands out for its very sensitive for a satellite that has such a wide field of view, he observes.

If other satellites, such as the Vanguard of the Quebec company GHGSat, are likely to be more effective in identifying specific emissions on a specific infrastructure, private companies must be hired to carry out flights above the installations and collect the data. Combined with the work carried out in the field to measure leaks, this solution can prove costly.

For an organization like EDF to arrive to raise the necessary funds for a large-scale project like that of MethaneSAT is completely unprecedented and impressive, adds Daniel Horen Greenford.

EDF aims to make the data obtained by MethaneSAT accessible to the public online from next year, notably on Google Earth Engine. Governments and organizations will be able to refer to it to verify whether the oil and gas industry is indeed working to reduce its methane emissions.

[Monitoring] local and regional methane levels in real time is an important contribution. And the fact that this data is freely accessible is a major asset that could greatly improve transparency and hold the industry accountable.

A quote from Daniel Horen Greenford, postdoctoral researcher

By making this data available, EDF is betting that pressure will intensify for the biggest polluters to do their part. It’s a way [to obtain from them] more transparency, to have more reliable data. It will be much easier to hold the industry accountable later, explains the researcher.

To date, 155 countries have committed to reducing their methane emissions. Around fifty oil and gas companies also announced their desire to reduce these emissions by 80 to 90% by 2030 at the COP28 on climate change in Dubai at the end of 2023.

Last January, the Biden administration proposed strengthening its methane regulations by imposing a fee on excess emissions from the U.S. oil and gas sector.

For its part, Canada plans to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by at least 75% by 2030, compared to 2012 emissions.

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