MethaneSAT Minisatellite Climate Mission
MethaneSAT is being developed by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has a long, successful record of working with both business and policymakers to create innovative, science-based solutions to critical environmental challenges. EDF also organized an unprecedented series of 16 independent studies that produced more than 35 peer-reviewed scientific papers involving more than 150 academic and industry experts to assess methane emissions at every stage in the U.S. oil and gas supply chain. 1) 2) 3)
EDF is a United States-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group with HQs in New York, founded in 1967. The group is known for its work on issues including global warming, ecosystem restoration, oceans, and human health, and advocates using sound science, economics and law to find environmental solutions that work. It is nonpartisan, and its work often advocates market-based solutions to environmental problems.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years after it is released to the atmosphere. Methane from human activities is causing at least a quarter of the warming our planet is experiencing today. 4)
MethaneSAT is designed to locate and measure methane from human sources worldwide, giving both companies and governments new ability to track, quantify, and reduce those emissions — and supplying the public with data to see that the job is being done.
One of the largest sources of these emissions today is the oil and gas industry. Cutting oil and gas methane emissions is the single fastest, most impactful thing we can do to slow the rate of warming today, even as we work to decarbonize our energy system. For example, reducing oil and gas methane emissions 45 percent by 2025 would deliver the same 20-year benefit to the climate as immediately closing 1,300 coal-fired power plants.
MethaneSAT will locate and measure methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on Earth with precision and at a scale never before achieved, at a fraction of the cost of most space missions. It is specifically designed to generate data that will enable both companies and countries to identify, manage, and reduce their methane emissions, slowing the rate at which our planet is warming.
The mission fills a critical gap in the capabilities of other satellites—both in orbit now and on the drawing board. Other satellites can either identify methane emissions across large geographic areas, or measure them at predetermined locations. MethaneSAT will do both. It will cover a wide, 200-kilometer view path passing over important target regions every few days.
MethaneSat’s advanced sensors will pick up the sun’s reflected infrared radiation as it passes through the atmosphere and parse them to reveal methane’s unique fingerprint. A series of sophisticated algorithms will sort through the data — factoring in the influence of clouds, tiny particles of air pollution, and reflectivity of ground cover— to calculate even small changes in methane emission rates.
MethaneSAT is using the latest scientific and technological innovations in sensor design, spectroscopy, data retrieval algorithms and flux inversions — a state-of-the-art modeling technique used to distinguish human-made emissions from ambient sources, and trace them back to their origin.
MethaneSAT will use a highly sensitive spectrometer to separate the narrow band within the shortwave infrared spectrum where methane absorbs light, allowing it to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts per billion. The satellite’s high-resolution coupled with a 200-kilometer view path will enable MethaneSAT to quantify even small emission sources over large areas.
MethaneSAT is being developed by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has a long, successful record of working with both business and policymakers to create innovative, science-based solutions to critical environmental challenges. EDF also organized an unprecedented series of 16 independent studies that produced more than 35 peer-reviewed scientific papers involving more than 150 academic and industry experts to assess methane emissions at every stage in the U.S. oil and gas supply chain.
The idea for MethaneSAT was first unveiled by EDF President Fred Krupp in an April 2018 TED Talk, as one of the inaugural group of world-changing ideas selected for seed funding by the Audacious Project, successor to the TED Prize.
The oil and gas industry releases an estimated 75 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere each year. The International Energy Agency estimates that the industry can achieve a 75 percent reduction using technologies available today (two-thirds of this at no net cost).
Leading oil and gas companies have begun to establish methane reduction targets, and several countries have either adopted regulations or are in the process of developing them. MethaneSAT will provide a tool that industry and government officials can use to provide the public with independent and objective assurance that reductions are being made and commitments kept.
MethaneSAT is designed to both identify and solve a global environmental problem. By providing global emissions data on a regular basis, the mission will vastly expand the public’s knowledge and understanding of both the magnitude of the problem and the opportunities to solve it. Companies and countries will have the data they need to take action and measure results.
MethaneSAT space mission
As part of the global effort to combat climate change, MBIE (Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment) is participating in the MethaneSAT space mission. It’s New Zealand’s first government-funded space mission. 5)
- In 2019, MBIE signed an agreement with MethaneSAT LLC and EDF to collaborate on the mission. Steven Hamburg is the project Co-lead, MethaneSAT and Chief Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. According to him:
- “New Zealand has been an early and essential partner in the MethaneSAT journey, bringing strong scientific and technical capabilities to the project and allowing us to integrate agricultural emissions into the mission.”
”The New Zealand government investment in MethaneSAT will help us achieve our goal to find and quantify methane emissions worldwide, and track reductions in emissions of this powerful greenhouse pollutant. We value the enthusiasm and insight that New Zealand brings to this project.”
- This investment will build important capability in our space sector, enable New Zealand researchers to work with world-leading atmospheric scientists, and make an important contribution to slowing global warming.
- We are making 2 main contributions to the MethaneSAT mission:
a) An Atmospheric science program, funded from Catalyst: Strategic over 4 years.
b) The Mission Operations Control Centre, funded from the Strategic Science Investment Fund.
Atmospheric science program
- Catalyst: Strategic is funding a project that will use the MethaneSAT satellite to demonstrate the potential to use satellites to accurately measure methane emissions from agriculture, both in New Zealand, and around the world. This multi-institution, multi-disciplinary team of Aotearoa’s leading researchers in atmospheric science and remote sensing. This team will be led by Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher of NIWA.
- In addition to the agricultural methane emissions research, the New Zealand science team will work with international researchers from the University of Harvard and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who are leading the MethaneSAT mission’s science on emissions from the oil and gas sector.
MOCC (Mission Operations Control Centre)
- The MOCC will be hosted by University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute.
- MOCC is a physical facility that provides a set of functional capabilities for the monitoring, control and support of the satellite.
- Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute was chosen as the permanent host after a call for proposals where they demonstrated that they:
a) have a track record and reputation of successfully delivering enduring infrastructure programs
b) have cohesive set of educational offerings in relevant areas (such as climate science), and a strategy for using the MOCC to support and build on existing educational programs
c) are committed to creating an enduring national capability for the benefit for New Zealand science sector
d) have the ability to work collaboratively with both domestic and international partners.
Rocket Lab will initially establish and operate the MOCC, for approximately the first 12 months after the satellite is successfully in orbit. University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute will then take over the hosting of the MOCC. Rocket Lab will work closely with the University of Auckland during the transition, and will provide post-handover consultation to the university if required.
• July 28, 2021: MethaneAIR is an airborne imaging spectrometer funded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and private philanthropy as part of the EDF International Methane project. The first scientific goal of the EDF program is to accurately measure emissions of CH4 from oil and gas production and processing facilities across the world, in order to define and track this major contribution to the rise of this greenhouse gas and pollutant in the global atmosphere. Representative observations of other major emission sources (landfills, coal mines, etc) are included. 6)
- MethaneAIR is the precursor of MethaneSAT, EDF's small satellite intended to revolutionize measurements and modeling of emissions of CH4 at regional (100s of km) and fine scales (< 1 km), across the globe. The MethaneAIR and MethaneSAT spectrometers use the same wavelengths, spectral sampling, and resolution.
- MethaneAIR measures total column dry air mole fraction (DAMF) of CH4 and CO2 (XCH4 and XCO2). DAMF measurements from aircraft and satellite are extraordinarily powerful for regional and large-scale source determination because they directly determine the mass loading of the atmosphere. MethaneAIR retrieves total column amounts of CH4 and CO2 using a radiative transfer model to analyze absorption spectra at 1.6 – 1.7 µm, observed in sunlight reflected from the ground. MethaneAIR normalizes these total columns by total column O2 that it measures in the 1.27 µm band of O2. Spatial and spectral resolutions (6 x 20 m, 0.05 nm, respectively) are much higher than previous measurements of this type. The swath will nevertheless be quite wide, about 7 km from 30 kft.
- The MethaneAIR project has two phases. Phase 1 include original test flights which were done between October and November 2019 onboard the GV. Phase 2 is the MethaneAIR project field phase operating out of RMMA (Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport) in Broomfield, CO, with final data collection and takes place between July and August 2021.
• May 3, 2021: Companies that build or operate Earth observation satellites foresee busier days ahead as governments, and businesses, step up climate change initiatives. 7)
- Geospatial monitoring is key for tracking, understanding and ultimately cutting greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to what is increasingly seen as an environmental emergency.
- U.S. President Joe Biden set a target April 22 for the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% levels by 2030. The pledge came three months after Biden signed an executive order committing the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement, a global partnership aiming to drive action on climate change.
- The emissions goal, announced during a virtual climate summit of world leaders convened by Biden, delays the Obama administration’s deadline by five years but nearly doubles the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the United States aims to cut relative to 2005 levels.
- Meanwhile, businesses are increasingly reporting greenhouse targets in their financial accounts — voluntarily — as more investors are using them in their evaluations.
- But self-policing will not be enough because it takes only a few rogue players to deteriorate an industry’s environmental footprint, according to Antoine Rostand, CEO of satellite imagery analysis provider Kayrros.
- “A strong regulatory framework is also needed to ensure a level playing field and set clear incentives and performance indicators for all companies to accelerate abatement and avoid the worse effects of global warming,” Rostand said.
- “Energy companies and industry organizations understand this and are coming out in favor of methane regulations.”
- Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over 20 years when released directly into the atmosphere, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a global partnership of governments, intergovernmental organizations and businesses.
- Recently changing course, lobbying groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute have said they support a national program to regulate methane emissions, rather than the current state-by-state approach.
- Growing support from industry follows advances in satellite monitoring, according to Rostand.
- “As long as emissions could not be properly measured, regulators were hamstrung in their ability to control them and had to rely on inaccurate emission factors and burdensome technical standards,” he said.
- “As a result, the cost/benefit of regulations was highly problematic and many businesses regarded them as a nuisance.
- “Satellite monitoring is completely changing this. Our ability to detect and accurately measure emissions makes it possible to prioritize and effectively target abatement efforts and reduce emissions at scale, speedily and at a marginal cost.”
- It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will participate in a methane strategy the European Union announced in October, when it cleared €100 million ($121 million) of support for the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) over five years.
- IMEO will aggregate and analyze multiple methane emissions data streams, and Europe has said satellites will be a core part of that mission.
- The goal is to accelerate reductions in methane emissions globally by improving the consistency and credibility of methane emissions data.
- A part of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the Observatory will work closely with CCAC and other partners, including the International Energy Agency — an intergovernmental organization.
- Manfredi Caltagirone, a program manager in UNEP’s energy and climate branch, told SpaceNews he expects the IMEO will officially launch toward the end of the third quarter — or early in the fourth quarter — of this year.
- Canada-based GHGSat, which operates satellites that measure emissions from individual facilities, is angling to be part of IMEO.
- “The recognition that satellites have a critical role to play is now being seen institutionally worldwide,” GHGSat CEO Stephane Germain said.
- U.S.-based MethaneSAT, a satellite operator subsidiary of nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), announced in January that SpaceX will launch its first methane-tracking spacecraft no earlier than Oct. 1, 2022.
- Europe sees satellites as critical for building a sustainable future, according to Massimo Comparini, senior executive vice president for observation, exploration and navigation at France-based Thales Alenia Space.
- “Through space we can achieve a more productive and sustainable agriculture, we can optimize shipping routes — which means much less emissions for large ships or even in air transport; we can even learn about the impact of global events such as pandemic,” Massimo said in an email.
- He added: “In the last years increased EO satellite activity is more and more effective to allow governments and private players to understand and measure their impact on the environment: an absolutely indispensable process.”
• April 22, 2021: Rocket Lab will play a critical role in an international climate change mission by developing a Mission Operations Control Center (MOCC) for MethaneSAT, a unique satellite mission created to foster and accelerate reductions in the emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for at least a quarter of today’s planetary warming. 8)
- Rocket Lab will develop, manage, and operate the Mission Operations and Control Center (MOCC) for MethaneSAT in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of the New Zealand Government’s NZD$26 million commitment to the international program. Rocket Lab will deliver the critical IT and software infrastructure necessary to task the satellite on orbit including tracking, pointing and positioning, and collision avoidance.
- Rocket Lab will also manage the collection and dissemination of climate change data generated by MethaneSAT to the program’s international cohort of scientists and researchers. MethaneSAT’s team includes experts from some of the world’s most seasoned aerospace organizations in both the commercial and public sectors, as well as researchers from Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who are developing MethaneSAT’s data acquisition and analytical capabilities.
- Rocket Lab brings deep space heritage to the MethaneSAT project having launched 19 missions, deployed more than 100 satellites and operated its own Photon spacecraft on-orbit. Having developed two state-of-the-art Mission Control Centers in New Zealand and the United States, Rocket Lab is able to bring extensive experience to the MethaneSAT project, enabling the New Zealand Government to deliver on its commitments to the MethaneSAT program and participate in its first internationally partnered space mission.
- Rocket Lab will manage mission operations for the first 12 months before continuing in an ongoing support capacity by training New Zealand’s future space operators and scientists in mission management and satellite operations. In addition to hosting the MOCC, New Zealand’s commitment to MethaneSAT will also provide overall project support and an expanded scientific research effort using data from MethaneSAT.
- The Mission Operations Control Center for MethaneSAT will be functional by mid-2022 ahead of on-orbit operations expected to begin in Q4 later that year.
- Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck, said, “In the same way that Rocket Lab’s technology changed the way satellites are launched and operated, the ability to detect and measure gas leaks from space will undoubtedly change the way climate change is understood and managed. This is an internationally significant mission that can help alleviate modern society’s impact on Earth in a big way, and we’re thrilled to be able to play our part in helping to mitigate climate change through MethaneSAT.”
• February 15, 2021: ENPULSION, the market leader in small satellite propulsion, today announced that it will provide the propulsion technology for Blue Canyon Technologies’ Microsat in support of the MethaneSAT mission.
- ENPULSION will provide its ENPULSION MICRO R3 thruster, a scaled version of their technology, which targets small and medium sized spacecrafts.
- “The increased demand we’ve seen for smaller class satellites with improved capabilities require high-performance, compact and reliable propulsion systems,” said Lorie Booth, program manager for Blue Canyon Technologies. “The enhanced propulsion capability of the microthruster is vital for the MethaneSAT program to meet the mission’s orbit raising requirements.”
- The ENPULSION MICRO R3 is part of the new R3 class of thrusters that ENPULSION has developed together with several large heritage satellite manufacturers and space agencies to establish a new standard of reliability in the NewSpace Propulsion sector.
- “We are proud to be involved in this exciting scientific project,” said Dr. Alexander Reissner, ENPULSION’s CEO. “The ever-increasing number of BCT platforms, which leverage our advanced propulsion solutions, is a logical result of the mutual trust the two companies have developed and the common vision on space mobility they share. It is also a consequence of the constant efforts to improve our technology and our products. All these factors ultimately lead to successful missions and to satisfied end customers.”
• September 21, 2020: MethaneSAT has reached an important new milestone with completion of the Critical Design Review (CDR) phase for both the mission's remote sensing instrument and the spacecraft platform "bus" that will provide power and maneuvering, and transmit the vast stream of data from the high resolution sensors to ground stations. Completion of the CDR means that MethaneSAT is now entering the production stage with a design that exceeds anticipated capabilities. 9)
- "This is a complex, technically challenging mission driven by the profound urgency of climate change. An intensive design process up front ensures that we can move quickly, and get it right," said Cassandra Ely, Director at MethaneSAT LLC. "The result is a more powerful measurement tool than even we thought possible. MethaneSAT is now moving from the drawing boards and onto the assembly floor."
- MethaneSAT will fill a crucial gap in current technology. Existing satellites can either identify large methane sources and quantify emissions across broad regions, or provide sensitive measurements from smaller, highly targeted locations. MethaneSAT will provide much higher sensitivity and spatial resolution than today's global mappers, with a far wider field of view than point-source systems.
- The 350 kg minisatellite will cover a 260-km field of view. The high-resolution sensor means it can observe areas as small as 100 x 400 meters, with the ability to accurate differences in methane levels as small as two parts per billion.
- In addition to the orbital instrument, MethaneSAT is also developing a sophisticated new platform to quickly process and transform the vast stream of data sent back by the satellite, automating complex analytics that currently take scientists weeks or months, creating a steady flow of actionable, accessible information in a variety of packages and formats tailored to enable industry, regulators and the public to track emissions, and document reductions.
- "The ability to generate very precise, high-resolution measurements like these on a near-weekly basis opens up a world of new opportunities to reduce the rate at which our planet is warming," said Mark Brownstein, Senior Vice President of Energy at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the non-profit parent organization of MethaneSAT LLC. "A continuous stream of fresh data will help operators find and fix problems faster, at less cost. It will enable governments and empower the public to see whether methane emissions are being managed effectively. And it will be a critical tool for investors and other stakeholders concerned about the risk of climate change."
- The CDR involved over 70 engineers and scientists, working virtually due to the COVID-19 situation. In addition to Ball Aerospace, the primary flight system Integrator and instrument provider, and Blue Canyon Technologies, which is supplying the platform bus, the exhaustive review included mission partners at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Harvard and SAO are providing the Science Data Processing element of the mission.
- The review also included more than 20 leading 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 Dr. Dan McCleese, former chief scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
• February 21, 2020: Ball Aerospace, Blue Canyon Technologies complete rigorous technology review. The two principal technology providers for the MethaneSAT mission have successfully cleared a rigorous design review process meant to ensure the key components of the satellite meet the critical design and performance specifications. The pair are Ball Aerospace, which is developing the very high-performance spectrometer-based methane sensing system, and Blue Canyon Technologies, which is building the orbital platform (or “bus”) that will provide power, maneuvering and communications. 10)
- Following months of development, Ball and Blue Canyon underwent three days of intensive examination by MethaneSAT staff and their partners from Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The review also included members of 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 Dr. Dan McCleese, former chief scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
- “MethaneSAT is built around a set of high-performance technologies and sophisticated analytical tools that, when combined, provide a major leap in our ability to measure and quantify even low-level methane emissions across the globe from space,” said mission co-lead Dr. Steven Hamburg. “We’re asking a lot of our technical partners and they are rising to the occasion.”
- The assessment included what the industry calls a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the Ball instrument, and a Heritage Design Review (HDR) for the adaptations that Blue Canyon is making to its X-SAT Saturn-Class platform. The purpose in each case is to validate the technology and engineering and ensure that the hardware can meet the demanding specifications of the mission.
- Manufacturing has already begun on key components of the satellite. Additional milestone reviews will occur as the design effort is completed and the system is built, assembled and readied for launch. As work on the hardware continues, MethaneSAT is now reviewing options for a launch vehicle to carry the satellite into orbit in late 2022.
• February 21, 2020: How does MethaneSAT compare to other methane detection satellites. The answer is that these systems fall into three basic categories, depending on the kind of measurements they’re designed to take. To develop a full understanding of the methane emissions picture, it takes multiple measurement types. 11)
- At one end of the spectrum are global mapping detectors, ideal for measuring broad, long term trends at the regional or planetary scale; at the other end are point-source detection systems, designed to identify large methane emitters over relatively small areas.
- In between are area-source detectors, like MethaneSAT. This newly emerging type of instrument has a much wider field of view than a point-source system, and a much lower detection threshold (meaning more sensitive) and higher spatial granularity (meaning it collects more detailed data at higher resolution) compared to a global mapper.
- MethaneSAT is designed to augment and deepen the information we are beginning to get from other satellite systems, either orbiting now or in the planning stages.
Global mapping detectors
- Global mapping detectors are designed to measure large scale trends in methane concentrations across big regional areas with relatively high emissions. The TROPOMI instrument launched by the European Space Agency falls into this class.
System description item
900 kg (Sentinel-5p satellite)
Detection threshold (ppb)
2 ppb (parts per billion)
400 x 100 m
7000 x 7000 m
Planned number of satellites
- Both global and area-source detectors can be used to identify and quantify large point-source methane emissions. In the current state-of-the-art, however, global detectors (e.g. TROPOMI) can only detect very large point source emitters (i.e. several thousand kilograms methane per hour, if not more).
- Although their larger pixel size means that global and area-source detectors offer more precise measurement than point-source detectors, global-detectors, in particular, tend to have much higher detection thresholds than point-source instruments.
- Whereas point-source detectors tend to be compact compared with area-source systems TROPOMI is larger than the area-source system on MethaneSAT.
- Point-source detectors are designed to look at very small areas, typically with high detection (less sensitive) thresholds. They are well suited for measuring emissions from known targets with relatively high emissions rates. For example, GHGSat has a field of view of 12km with a relatively high detection threshold (the methane concentration enhancement detectable by the sensor), of ~100 parts per billion (ppb) precision.
- Point-source detectors also have fine spatial resolution with a pixel size – the smallest viewable element – in the tens of meters range. Point-source instruments are typically less expensive than the other types, making it more affordable to use a constellation of multiple satellites to provide frequent monitoring of pre-determined target sites. Alternatively, some of them are small enough to fit on an airplane.
- GHG Sat and other point-source technologies are diagnostic tools that can zero in on specific facilities to pinpoint the exact location of a problem or a leak. They can be used to keep a close watch on a source that is known to a reoccurring problem.
- Most of the methane detecting systems either operating now or known to be on the drawing board are point-source detectors. Along with GHGSat, the category also includes the system proposed by the State of California and Planet Labs; and the microsatellite system announced by Bluefield, (along with the AVIRIS-NG, which flies on a small aircraft operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
- An area-source system like MethaneSAT combines key capabilities of both point-source and global mapping systems. They have a field of view of hundreds of kilometers wide, coupled with very high precision sensors, enabling them to quantify emissions over areas with diverse types of emitters (whether small and diffuse sources or large and concentrated ones).
- An area-source detector can also detect high-emitting point sources, but with less spatial granularity, compared to point-source detectors. This capability enables area-source detectors to capture a wide range of emissions, allowing for robust emission quantification encompassing both area- and point sources.
- Area-source detectors are designed to be more precise than point-source systems. For example, MethaneSAT has a detection threshold at least 10 times more sensitive than the current GHGSat satellite (Table 2). Due to the challenging science demands of high-precision area-source systems, they are typically larger as well. For example, MethaneSAT is 10 times bigger than GHGSat.
- At present, MethaneSAT is the only known high-precision area-source detection system that fills a critical data and observing gap between point source and global mapping satellites. It is designed to augment and deepen the information we are beginning to get from point-source and global mapping missions.
System description item
Mass of satellite
Detection threshold (ppb)
400 x 100 m
30 x 30 m
Planned number of satellites
Combining high-precision with broad path
- High-precision area detection is important because a large proportion of overall methane emissions comes from sources that would fall below the detection threshold of the point-source instruments currently flying or proposed. Likewise, the ability to generate high-precision data measured across wide areas allows overall trends in methane emissions by sector to be monitored.
- High-precision area detection is important because a large proportion of overall methane emissions comes from sources that would fall below the detection threshold of the point-source instruments currently flying or proposed. Likewise, the ability to generate high-precision data measured across wide areas allows overall trends in methane emissions by sector to be monitored.
- Without the capability to accurately measure overall emissions and understand their sources, comprehensive emission reduction efforts become much more difficult, because a large portion of emissions would be invisible, and thus unaccounted for. Similarly, area-source emissions are not well understood; at present there exist only snapshots provided by aircraft surveys, mostly representing just a few parts of North America.
Matrix of measurement satellites
- MethaneSAT plays a unique and important role in the ecosystem of sensor types required to gather the data needed to know how best to reduce methane emissions.
- For example, TROPOMI provides data about areas across the globe that have very large emissions. MethaneSAT will provide weekly data from many target regions around the world, quantifying almost all emissions and as well as larger point sources. This makes it possible to assess the full measure of the problem, determine who is responsible, and press for action.
- Meanwhile, the California/Planet mission and GHGSat’s technology can be used by countries or companies to measure and monitor specific facilities with large emissions, for regulatory enforcement or operational compliance, once such measures are in place.
• January 6, 2020: MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, has selected Blue Canyon Technologies to supply the platform for its donor-funded satellite. 12)
- MethaneSAT said Jan. 6 it will use X-SAT, Blue Canyon’s largest offered spacecraft bus, to carry a methane-detection payload from Ball Aerospace. The nonprofit hopes to launch the 350 kg satellite in mid-2022, though a launch provider has not yet been selected.
- Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project co-lead, described the MethaneSAT satellite as a “sensorcraft,” because of the complexity of the sensor. Payload provider Ball Aerospace, not Blue Canyon, will be integrating the payload, he said.
- “In this case it’s flipped — the payload provider is the integration contractor, because the payload is much more sophisticated and complex,” he said in an interview.
- Ingersoll said the satellite project has a budget of $88 million to cover production, launch and commissioning. MethaneSAT will likely piggyback on a bigger rocket as a secondary payload to keep costs low, he said.
- Ingersoll said MethaneSAT plans to rely on commercial ground communications companies to link with its greenhouse-gas detection satellite once in orbit.
- The New Zealand government is providing $16 million to support the satellite and build a mission control center in the country. Roughly $4 million of that is included in MethaneSAT’s $88 million budget to reach orbit and get started, with the remainder dedicated to later costs, such as ongoing operations, ground control and data handling, according to MethaneSAT.
- Ingersoll said MethaneSAT wants this first satellite to pave the way for commercial ventures to follow with their own methane-detection satellites.
- “Our hope is that there will be more methane-sats that will fly, but it’s also our hope that they are not going to be philanthropically funded,” he said.
• February 20, 2020: Ball Aerospace successfully completed the PDR (Preliminary Design Review) of the advanced spectrometer instrument for the MethaneSAT Flight System, a 350 kg satellite that will locate and measure methane emissions around the globe. With the completion of PDR, Ball will proceed with the critical design phase. 13)
- "We are excited to be a part of a mission that aims to study and address the impact of methane on the environment and climate," said Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Ball Aerospace. "MethaneSAT fits well with Ball's long history of earth science, our commitment to sustainability and our experience in providing highly-calibrated measurements of environmental factors related to ozone, weather and pollution."
- MethaneSAT is expected to be launched in 2022 by MethaneSAT LLC, a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The non-profit is dedicated to creating innovative science-based solutions to critical environment challenges, including anthropogenic methane emissions, a significant contributor to global climate change.
- Two extremely sensitive spectrometers sit at the heart of the Ball-designed instrument that will measure a narrow part of the shortwave infrared spectrum where methane absorbs light, allowing it to detect concentrations as low as two parts per billion. In addition to the MethaneSAT instrument, Ball Aerospace is providing flight systems integration and testing, launch support, and commissioning services.
- "MethaneSAT is built around a set of high performance technologies and sophisticated analytics tools that when combined provide a major leap in our ability to measure and quantify even low-level methane emissions across the globe from space," said mission co-lead Dr. Steven Hamburg, who also serves as Chief Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund. "We're asking a lot of our technical partners and Ball Aerospace is rising to the occasion."
- Ball Aerospace has more than six decades of experience providing leading-edge systems, delivering instruments that span the electromagnetic spectrum for a wide range of government and commercial applications to help predict the weather, map air quality and monitor the Earth's environment. For example, Ball built LIDAR and wide-field camera instruments for NASA's Cloud-Aerosol LIDAR and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) mission; the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollutions (TEMPO) instrument to measure air quality for a NASA mission; and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) of hyperspectral instruments that measure the global distribution and vertical structure of ozone for NASA and NOAA missions. OMPS-1 and OMPS-2 are currently flying on Suomi NPP and the Ball-built Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1, now NOAA-20), respectively. Ball is also building OMPS instruments for follow-on JPSS satellites.
• November 7, 2019: New Zealand has joined its first official space mission as a country to combat climate change and the mission control center will be located in New Zealand. 14)
- Today the Government announced it would contribute $26 million towards MethaneSAT, a state-of-the-art satellite designed to detect global methane emissions with unprecedented accuracy. The mission is being led by United States-based NGO Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and its subsidiary MethaneSAT LLC, who have signed a partnership agreement with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
- Dr Peter Crabtree, GM of Science, Innovation and International at MBIE (Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment) and head of the New Zealand Space Agency, said that MethaneSAT is exactly the kind of science that New Zealand should be investing in.
- “This investment has three key benefits for New Zealand – we are showing global leadership by investing in a science mission that will directly help to fight climate change, we are giving Kiwi researchers the opportunity to join a cutting-edge climate science mission that will see them working alongside the world’s best climate scientists and aerospace experts, and we are building important capability in our rapidly growing space sector,” Dr Crabtree said.
- “New Zealand already makes significant investments in climate science and in research to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. We will be building on these efforts by working with EDF, which has a proven track record in conducting excellent science to inform decision making.”
- EDF Chief Executive Fred Krupp says that the New Zealand Government is an ideal mission partner because both parties share values which underpin the mission’s purpose.
- “Environmental Defense Fund is a highly professional organization with a proven track record in conducting excellent science to inform evidence-based decision making by governments and industry,” Mr Krupp said. “We share values related to environmental leadership, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to performing excellent research.”
- While EDF and MethaneSAT are initially focused on collecting data about methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, Dr Crabtree says New Zealand will work with EDF to consider how we might use the data to investigate and potentially lead an atmospheric science component of the mission related to agricultural methane emissions.
• September 26, 2019: A new generation of methane-sensing satellite technology took a giant leap toward launch this week, as MethaneSAT LLC signed an agreement with Ball Aerospace to design and build the advanced new sensing instrument that sits at the heart of a of a unique mission to protect the Earth’s climate. 15)
- The contract, which follows a 10-month competitive process, marks a key milestone in the development of MethaneSAT, a 350 kg-class satellite, which will locate and measure methane emissions almost anywhere on Earth.
- Methane from human-made sources is responsible for at least a quarter of the warming occurring today. MethaneSAT is designed to enable and encourage companies and countries to reduce their emissions of this potent greenhouse gas by generating data needed to manage leaks and other releases. MethaneSAT will also foster a new level of transparency by making methane emissions data publicly available free of charge.
- “This is a sophisticated mission with a truly unique purpose, to reduce emissions faster by making them visible to everyone. MethaneSAT compliments existing satellites, bringing even greater capability to regularly identify and quantify methane sources almost anywhere on the planet,” said Dr. Steven Hamburg, MethaneSAT project co-lead.
- Initial focus of the mission will be on the oil and gas industry, which releases about 75 million metric tons of methane each year worldwide. Cutting methane emissions 45% by the year 2025 from the oil and gas industry alone will have the same 20-year climate benefit as shutting down one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
- In addition to its core team, MethaneSAT has assembled a group of experts from some of the world’s top aerospace organizations, both commercial and government, as well as leading academic experts in remote sensing and atmospheric sciences.
- “These are the most seasoned leaders you could bring to a complex endeavor like this one,” said Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project co-lead and a satellite entrepreneur with over 30 years’ experience. “They’ve blazed trails and broken ground, and they know how leading-edge technological ventures work. It’s exactly the team we want helping guide this program.”
- The principal scientific investigator on MethaneSAT is Dr. Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard University. He worked with MethaneSAT LLC and a team from Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to establish core mission requirements, design selection criteria and the launch schedule.
• January 11, 2019: The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has awarded contracts to Ball Aerospace and Space Systems Loral to develop designs for a privately funded satellite to track methane emissions. 16)
- EDF announced Jan. 10 that the two companies had received study contracts, with an overall value of $1.5 million, to advance concepts for MethaneSAT, a spacecraft designed to monitor human-generated methane emissions worldwide. EDF said it selected the two companies from nearly two dozen firms that expressed an interest in the project.
- The companies will spend the next several months refining their designs for MethaneSAT. EDF plans to then choose one of the companies to build the spacecraft for launch in 2021, but didn’t specify when that downselect would take place.
- “We’ve had the opportunity to work with the some of the most capable companies in the space industry,” Tom Ingersoll, the project manager for MethaneSAT at EDL and former chief executive of Skybox Imaging, in a statement. “Ball and SSL are the two we feel are best positioned to make this challenging mission a success.”
- SSL, a division of Maxar Technologies, said in a separate statement it will work with DigitalGlobe, also owned by Maxar, on its MethaneSAT bid, with DigitalGlobe providing technical input on the satellite’s payload and guidance on the overall mission plan. SSL cited its growing experience in small satelites, such as the series of SkySat spacecraft for the former Skybox Imaging, now part of Planet.
- EDF announced plans to develop MethaneSAT in April 2018. The spacecraft is intended to monitor emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas from 50 major oil and gas regions that account for more than 80 percent of global methane production, revisiting them on intervals of seven days or less. EDF plans to make the data freely available.
- “Significant reductions in oil and gas methane emissions now can materially lower the rate of global temperature rise in our lifetime. MethaneSAT will give us the data we need to seize this moment,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of EDF’s energy program, in the statement.
- Besides Ingersoll, EDF has brought in other space industry experts to advise the group on MethaneSAT. Dan McCleese, former chief scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, leads the science advisory group for the mission. Joe Rothenberg, former director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, chairs the technical advisory group. Rothenberg also worked as director of engineering and operations for Terra Bella, the name given to Skybox Imaging after its acquisition by Google in 2014.
- However, EDF has provided few details about how much MethaneSAT will cost or how it will be funded. The project received last year a grant from a new initiative called The Audacious Project, although the size of the award was not disclosed. An EDF spokesman did not respond to an inquiry Jan. 10 about the financial status of the project.
- MethaneSAT is one of several Earth science missions being done outside of space agencies. Canadian company GHGSat announced it September it had raised $10 million to support development of satellites for monitoring greenhouse gases. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who retired this month, announced in September an initiative to develop a greenhouse gas satellite in cooperation with Planet.
- Space agencies say they welcome those new efforts, as long as the data and how they’re calibrated are shared. “If we have free and open exchange of data, and insight into the calibration and validation and characterization, all comers, from the commercial sector, from sub-national organizations, from NGOs, et cetera, can only help to advance the science,” said Mike Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, during a panel session at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany in October.
• April 13, 2018: An environmental group announced plans April 11 to develop and operate its own satellite to track one particular greenhouse gas, the latest sign of the proliferation of smallsat technology. 17)
- In a presentation at the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said that his organization planned to develop MethaneSAT, a small satellite designed specifically to measure methane emissions from human activities.
- The satellite, the organization says, will be able to provide data on methane emissions, particularly from oil and gas facilities, with greater
precision than existing satellites or other sensors. EDF plans to use the satellite to monitor 50 major oil and gas regions that account for more than 80 percent of global methane production, revisiting them on intervals of seven days or less. EDF will make data collected by MethaneSAT freely available.
- “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,” Krupp said in a statement. “By providing reliable, fully transparent data on a worldwide scale, MethaneSAT will help transform a serious climate threat into a crucial opportunity.”
- EDF has hired Tom Ingersoll, the former chief executive of Skybox Imaging, to help run the MethaneSAT project. At Skybox, he led the development of a constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites called SkySats. Skybox was acquired by Google in 2014 and renamed Terra Bella, and then sold to Planet in 2017.
- “Advances in space technology have put satellite projects within reach of any organization with the focus and the will,” Ingersoll said in the statement. “EDF has assembled the right partners with a strong vision and the ability to execute. The potential impact of the MethaneSAT mission has attracted the top talent in the industry to help successfully execute our vision.”
- Initial funding for MethaneSAT is being provided by The Audacious Project, an initiative established by the organizers of the TED conference for “collaborative philanthropy for bold ideas.” The initiative has raised more than $250 million to date, and MethaneSAT is one of five projects it announced April 11 it was backing. It did not disclose how much funding it was providing for the satellite.
Boulder -based BCT (Blue Canyon Technologies) will design the MethaneSAT spacecraft, using BCT’s newest X-SAT line of spacecraft, specifically the X-SAT Saturn-Class, which it says can carry payloads up to 200 kg. The X-SAT Saturn-Class’s compact profile is intended to maximize the volume, mass and power available for the methane measuring instrument. BCT says it is currently building more than 60 spacecraft for government, commercial and academic missions. 18)
Propulsion: ENPULSION of Wiener Neustadt, Austria, the market leader in small satellite propulsion, announced that it will provide the propulsion technology for Blue Canyon Technologies’ microsat in support of the MethaneSAT mission. Blue Canyon Technologies is a small satellite manufacturer and mission services provider. 19)
Bus: The bus is manufactured by Blue Canyon Technologies to a MethaneSAT specification. The bus provides 140 W orbit average power to the payload, provides more than 154 m/s of ΔV, and can support up to a 206 kg instrument. The four reaction wheels provide the agility to meet science pointing requirements and enables body-pointing of the X-band antenna during downlinks.
The ΔV supports both orbit maintenance, and orbit raising so that the desired science orbit can be attained even if the launch vehicle deploys the flight system up to 50 km below the desired orbit. De-orbit ΔV is also included in the rare case that the launch vehicle deploys the payload at the high end of the dispersion error above the desired science orbit.
MethaneSAT Flight System Overview
The MethaneSAT flight system consists of two spectrometers with passively cooled HgCdTe focal planes. The system was designed while working closely with the science team to meet the overall mission goals while minimizing instrument cost. The instrument rides on a Blue Canyon Technologies Saturn-class bus. Figure 7 shows the major components in the flight system. 20)
The flight system mounts to the launch vehicle using a 24” Motorized Lightband and fits within the wedge-shaped volume available for secondary payload on a Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The flight system launch mass is currently predicted to be 366 kg.
Launch: MethaneSAT is planned to be launched in October 2022. In January 2021, MethaneSAT LLC awarded a contract to SpaceX to deliver its new satellite into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Now under construction after completing an intensive design process, the MethaneSAT instrument is on schedule for a launch window that opens October 1, 2022. 21)
Sensor complement (CH4 and O2 sensors)
The MethaneSAT instrument is made of two separate structural assemblies: the sensor assembly and the enclosure structure. The sensor assembly incorporates the sensitive optical systems and the enclosure assembly supports the rest of the instrument components. To transfer heat and decouple any external CTE and/or structural loads into the optical systems, thermal straps are used to interact between the cryo-radiator and the sensor focal plane assemblies (Ref: 20).
The individual CH4 and O2 sensors are mounted on an optical bench that bolts directly to the bus structure by means of three flexures and an adapter ring. This was done for three reasons; first to put the sensor mass load through the central structure of the bus directly into the launch interface,second to thermally isolate the sensor assembly for better thermal control, and third to reduce flight system mass. The O2 sensor assembly is show in Figure 8.
Both sensor assemblies use an athermalized optical design with carefully selected lens and structure materials to provide an optically stable assembly for a wide operational temperature range. Flexure mounts are used to mount the optics into the housings to minimize radial distortions induced by CTE (Coefficient of Thermal Expansion) effects from mismatching CTEs between optics, adhesives, and the housing structure.
The outer enclosure structure is made of aluminum honeycomb and mounted to the bus by means of four corner flexures. The enclosure structure supports all the non-optical components, such as the X-band and S-band antennas, electronics power box, cryo-radiator, cold-bars, thermal straps, and earth shield.
The MethaneSAT optical system consists of two Littrow spectrometers; one covering 1249 – 1305 nm wavelengths for Oxygen detection and one covering 1605 – 1683 nm wavelengths for Methane and Carbon Dioxide detection, with 0.1 nm spectral sampling and 0.3 nm resolution.
MethaneSAT has a 21º wide field of view, providing an observing swath of about 200 km(at nadir) from the minimum design altitude of 526 km. High spatial resolution (~100 x 400 m) is attained by designing the optics around a 2048 pixel wide focal plane, of which 1990 pixels are used to capture the swath width.
To help reduce cost and complexity, the objective is identical between the two sensors, and the two spectrometers share the same design and materials choices, but with varying optical prescriptions.
There are two primary thermal systems on MethaneSAT: the cryogenic system for focal plane cooling and the room-temperature system for maintaining thermal stability of the optics. The driving component of the cryogenic subsystem is the cryogenic radiator and thermal shield. The driving room temperature components are the athermalized optics and associated temperature control systems.
The radiator thermal shield, as the name implies, shields the cryogenic radiator from the warm Earth and all direct sun. With the shield’s special specular coating, any incident sunlight on the shield is specularly reflected and minimizes diffuse solar reflections that would heat the radiator. This specular finish also enables the cryogenic radiator to see the reflection of cold deep space, further facilitating cooling. Mission ConOps keeps the radiator out of direct view of the sun, however white paint is used to reduce the radiator’s sensitivity to reflected sunlight.
Specialized cryogenic multi-layer insulation and structural flexures thermally isolate the radiator from the main honeycomb panel structure. The oxygen and methane detectors are connected to the radiator through a thermally conductive, yet structurally isolating, coldpath bar. The radiator is appropriately sized to provide a cold-bias closed-loop positive heater control of the detectors. These detector heaters are used to maintain a constant cryogenic detector temperature for the duration of the mission. This heater control system maintains thermal control of the focal planes when pointing the instrument at off-nadir ground targets.
The room-temperature optical system for both oxygen and methane sensors share a common opticalbench that thermally couples both sensors. A heater on the optical bench is sized to keep the sensors at the same temperature for the duration of the mission. Additionally,multi-layer insulation is used to further isolate the sensor from environmental thermal disturbances.
Together the cryogenic and room-temperature thermal subsystems create a thermally stable platform f or the instrument to collect consistent science data for the duration of the mission.
PEB (Payload Electronics Box)
The payload electronics box handles all instrument control, data processing, and storage. The box contains the following seven boards connected via a backplane:
• Bus interface board
• Solid state data recorder
• Digital board
• LED and heater control board
• 2 x focal plane bias boards
• Low-voltage power supply board.
The flight boards in their test configuration are shown in Figure 9. The combination of instrument control and focal plane control into a single electronics box provides a compact and low mass solution for instruments that leverages past programs. Four of the boards in the box are built-to-print from past programs, and the others strongly leverage designs from past programs, enabling rapid design/build cycles while reducing both risk and cost.
Focal Plane Assemblies
The focal plane assemblies are designed to both protect the focal plane and to minimize heat leak. The system was designed, built, and tested at Ball Aerospace leveraging the design used for the CAVIS instrument. The focal plane is a custom-built Teledyne HgCdTe detector material with a GeoSnap read-out integrated circuit with 2048 x 2048 pixels. The driving requirement of the focal plane assembly is the ability to maintain the focal plane at or below 190 K. Figure 10 shows the two focal plane assemblies produced for the CH4 and O2 sensors.
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14) ”New Zealand joins MethaneSAT climate mission in space,” New Zealand Government, 7 November 2019, URL: https://www.mbie.govt.nz/about/news/new-zealand-joins-methanesat-climate-mission-in-space/
15) ”A unique methane satellite takes giant leap toward launch day,” The Fourth Wave of Innovation, 26 September 2019, URL: https://medium.com/the-fourth-wave/
16) Jeff Foust, ”Ball and SSL win study contracts for methane emission tracking satellite,” SpaceNews, 11 January 2019, URL: https://spacenews.com/
17) Jeff Foust, ”Environmental group plans satellite to track greenhouse gas emissions,” SpaceNews, 13 April 2018, URL: https://spacenews.com/
18) Caleb Henry, ”Blue Canyon Technologies to build its largest satellite to date for MethaneSAT,” SpaceNews, 6 January 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/
19) ”ENPULSION to provide Microthrusters for Blue Canyon Technologies’ Microsat as part of MethaneSAT Mission,” Enpulsion, 15 February 2021, URL: https://www.enpulsion.com/news/
20) Reuben R. Rohrschneider, Steven Wofsy, Jonathan E. Franklin, Joshua Benmergui, Juancarlos Soto, Spencer B. Davis, ”The MethaneSAT Mission,” Proceedings of the 35th Annual AIAA/USU Virtual Conference on Small Satellites, August 7-12, 2021, Logan, UT, USA, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/smallsat/2021/all2021/
21) ”MethaneSAT Picks SpaceX as Launch Provider for Mission to Protect Earth’s Climate,” MethaneSAT, 13 January 2021, URL: https://www.methanesat.org/2021/01/13/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).