Satellite launched to track down leaks of potent greenhouse gas


An artist’s impression of MethaneSAT

Environmental Defense Fund/NASA

A satellite expected to transform our view of planet-warming methane emissions from oil and gas production has launched from the Vandenburg Space Force Base in California. Called MethaneSAT, the satellite will orbit the planet 15 times per day, using infrared sensors to measure methane leaking from all of the world’s major production centres.

“We designed MethaneSAT explicitly to serve one goal,” says Steven Hamburg at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the non-profit advocacy group that developed the satellite along with a consortium of universities and aerospace firms. “To produce policy-relevant data to track methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, globally.”

Methane is the most significant greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide. And oil, gas and coal production are among the largest sources of anthropogenic methane emissions. Many governments have set targets to slash methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and at the COP28 climate summit last year, a number of large oil and gas companies pledged to zero out all methane emissions from their operations by 2050.

But assessing progress towards those pledges is difficult. Current methane emissions remain poorly quantified, leaks are challenging to track and aerial surveys and on-the-ground monitoring are expensive – and some countries don’t allow them. MethaneSAT joins a growing constellation of methane-sensing instruments in orbit aiming to provide a better view. Existing satellites, like the European Space Agency’s TROPOMI, sense methane emissions across large regions. Others, like the 11 methane-sensing instruments run by Canadian company GHGSat, focus on identifying specific point sources of methane.

In contrast, MethaneSAT will regularly monitor methane at high resolution in between these scales, enabling researchers to quantify emissions across the areas relevant to oil and gas production as well as map their probable sources. “We needed to be able to see all the emissions and resolve them in space,” says Hamburg.

Once running full bore, the satellite will deliver up to 30 different 40,000 square kilometre “scenes” of measured methane flux per day, according to Hamburg. He says they will prioritise monitoring oil and gas production regions – such as the Permian basin in west Texas – but will also be able to measure methane from other major sources like agriculture, wetlands and landfills. “Methane is methane,” he says.

Along with developing the satellite, Hamburg and his colleagues have produced a pipeline to rapidly turn the raw data it generates into publicly available estimates of the amount of methane emissions, and the probable sources of plumes. This includes a global database of oil and gas infrastructure created in partnership with Google to help link detections of methane with their sources.

“We’re mapping the whole thing,” says Hamburg. He says the satellite will generate more data on methane emissions from oil and gas in its first year of operation than was collected over the past 50 years. Full data collection is expected to begin in early 2025.

“The data is here, and the technology is here to start taking action,” says Jean-Francois Gauthier at GHGSat, who expects MethaneSAT will help identify sources of emissions that GHGSat’s focused satellites can then measure in more detail.

Rob Jackson at Stanford University in California says the satellite will provide an independent check on emissions reported by companies and countries. “There will be nowhere to hide,” he says. The flood of data could also help explain the still-uncertain source of rising rates of methane since 2007, he adds.

“The big question for me is how people will use the information,” says Jackson. “There’s an assumption out there that once we have all the information the emissions will go away somehow. But having information from aircraft and on-the-ground sources has not stopped those emissions.”