A technology-enabled mission to monitor methane pollution is being launched today

A mission to map and monitor global methane pollution, a potent greenhouse gas, will launch today after years of collaboration between some of the biggest names in technology. It’s called MethanSAT, a satellite that has received funding and support from Jeff Bezos, Google and SpaceX, among others.

MethaneSAT is expected to launch today at 2:05 PM PT from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch will be streamed live on the SpaceX website and on the company’s X profile. The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund that developed MethaneSAT is also promising a special program starting at 1:40 PM PT, with key experts and “supporters” to talk about the mission.

Methane pollution is responsible for about 30 percent of global warming, raising sea levels and causing more extreme weather disasters. The gas comes from decomposing waste in landfills, methane-emitting microbes in rice fields and, infamously, from the belching and defecating of livestock. It also routinely escapes from oil and gas fields, pipelines and even household appliances. After all, so-called natural gas is usually just methane.

In orbit, in 95 minutes it will target oil and gas fields that account for about 80 percent of global production

It’s all that leaking gas that the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) plans to address with MethaneSAT. The group has already documented massive amounts of leaking methane. Between 2012 and 2018, it found that U.S. methane emissions were actually 60 percent higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

The group worked with forty research institutions and fifty companies to compile a more comprehensive picture of methane emissions. It was painstaking work to take ground measurements directly from pollution sources, which they supplemented with airborne measurements taken by aircraft.

MethaneSAT can cover much more ground much faster. According to EDF, it would take about 20 seconds to survey the same area that would have taken a plane two hours. When it orbits Earth in 95 minutes, it will have eyes on oil and gas fields that account for more than 80 percent of global production.

The goal is to quickly see how much methane is escaping and where from, so that measures can be taken to plug all those leaks. Methane is 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels at warming the planet – but only within the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere, and then its power diminishes.

Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, lingers in the atmosphere and retains heat for centuries. Because methane is a potent but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas, preventing it from leaking is seen as a quick way to have a significant, immediate effect on climate change.

Google last month announced a partnership with EDF to create a global map of methane pollution from oil and gas infrastructure. The company is training AI to recognize boreholes, pump jacks and storage tanks in satellite images, similar to the way it identifies sidewalks and street signs for Google Maps. By matching that infrastructure with emissions data from MethaneSAT, regulators may be able to help determine where there are leaks.

If successful, this mission could be a game changer by allowing policymakers to assess how much progress they are making on climate action based on real-world measurements of pollution rather than estimates based on companies self-reporting their emissions.

“What we have learned in the ten years of doing field measurements is that when you measure the actual emissions in the field, it actually turns out that the total magnitude of emissions coming from the industry is much higher than what is being reported by them using technical techniques. calculations,” Mark Brownstein, EDF senior vice president of energy transition, said during a press conference on Friday.

According to EDF, the satellite cost $88 million to build and launch. The Bezos Earth Fund gave EDF a $100 million grant in 2020 to get MethaneSAT off the ground, making it one of the largest backers of the project. MethaneSAT also marks the New Zealand Space Agency’s first publicly funded space mission.

If all goes according to plan, MethanSAT should start releasing some data publicly in early summer. A complete picture of the major oil and gas basins around the world is not expected until 2025. According to EDF, the data will be available on the MethanSAT website and on Google Earth Engine.

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