A US environmental group has been awarded tens of millions of dollars to develop a new satellite to help track—and ultimately, reduce—emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas facilities around the world.

If the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) succeeds at launching its probe, it could be the first environmental group to send its own satellite into space. The group's efforts are being funded through the Audacious Project, a joint effort of the non-profit group TED and philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The EDF, which is based in New York City, aims to launch the satellite as early as 2020. The environmental group and its scientific partners at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, say that their planned ‘MethaneSAT’ will make the most precise measurements of methane yet from space. Their goal is to monitor emissions from roughly 50 major oil and gas fields that account for around 80% of the world’s oil and gas production. But the satellite could also be used to estimate emissions from landfills and agriculture.

“We need good solid data so that we really can support global action on climate change, and we’ve got to do it fast,” says Steven Hamburg, the EDF’s chief scientist.

MethaneSAT is an offshoot of the EDF’s research on greenhouse-gas emissions from US oil and gas facilities. In 2012, the group spearheaded a collaboration with industry and academic scientists to better quantify methane emissions and identify leaky infrastructure, from the wellhead all the way to the urban distribution system. That work is ongoing, but suggests that methane emissions from oil and gas facilities exceed US government estimates1. Last year, the EDF helped to launch another collaboration with industry partners, governments and academics to carry that research forward internationally.

Methane mapped

The oil and gas industry emits around 76 million tonnes of methane each year globally, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris. That’s enough to power an estimated 285 million US homes. With more-detailed information at the level of individual fields, Hamburg says, the EDF can work with companies to identify and plug leaks. At the same time, governments will have more information to verify emissions and test policies.

The most detailed measurements currently available of atmospheric methane concentrations come from a sensor aboard the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P spacecraft, which launched in October 2017 (ref. 2). The Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument provides global coverage at a resolution of nearly 50 square kilometres, but those measurements do not capture the dispersed sources of emissions from oil and gas fields.

Commercial firms have developed high-resolution sensors that can be placed aboard 10-centimetre-sided CubeSats to measure emissions from individual wells or other facilities. Those data are proprietary, however, and the measurements cannot be scaled up to the level of an entire oil and gas field.

The EDF team is designing MethaneSAT to provide more-precise measurements, at a resolution of 1 square kilometre, with global coverage at least once a week. That information can then be plugged into atmospheric models to calculate cumulative emissions across larger areas, says Steve Wofsy, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard who is working on the project. “Along the way, we’ll be able to distinguish individual facilities if they emit enough,” he says.

Challenges ahead

Riley Duren, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, says that the EDF team's goals are ambitious — and if MethaneSAT succeeds, it will help to fill an important gap in methane monitoring. But completing the global picture will require many types of observation, including those from instruments on Earth, he adds.

Others worry about the practical obstacles to launching the proposed satellite. “EDF has a very good team, and I have no doubt that it can be done,” says Charles Elachi, who formerly headed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The challenge is how much it’s going to cost.”

The EDF declined to provide a precise cost estimate for its satellite because the design remains in flux, but said that it is likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars. The group is seeking extra support from philanthropists to operate the satellite once it’s in orbit. All the data will be freely available.

Hamburg says that the project provides a new model for funding targeted space missions. “We’re going to be the first, but I think we’re going to see this approach be used by others as well,” he says.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on April 11, 2018.