This space technology can cut climate pollution on Earth

MethaneSAT, shown in an artist's rendering, aims to use new technology to map and measure human-made emissions globally, to help reduce methane pollution.

The latest science warns that the window for preventing the most catastrophic global warming is closing fast. A seemingly small difference — just half a degree Celsius — can intensify the effects.

Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways we have right now to slow the rate of climate change. But tracking these invisible emissions can be hard.

That’s the idea behind MethaneSAT, a compact new satellite designed specifically to pinpoint the location and magnitude of methane emissions virtually anywhere on Earth.

Why focus on methane?

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Human-made methane emissions account for a quarter of today's global warming.

The oil and gas industry is a leading source. From remote wellheads to gas utility lines, companies release about 75 million metric tons a year. That’s enough gas to produce electricity for all of Africa twice over.

First-of-its-kind satellite gets key data

To fully understand the problem — and drive the solutions — we need more and better data about:

  • How large methane emissions are.
  • Where they're coming from.
  • The biggest potential reductions.
  • Progress of those reductions over time.

MethaneSAT, being developed by EDF affiliate MethaneSAT LLC, will provide global high-resolution coverage, exceeding anything in orbit or on the drawing board today. The technology driving the satellite will fill gaps left by other satellite systems.

Because it will focus only on methane, MethaneSAT will be quicker and less expensive to launch than the complex, multi-function satellites built by government space agencies, so we can get data sooner.

We're sharing the data to drive action

MethaneSAT is designed to map and measure oil and gas methane emissions worldwide, including roughly 50 major oil and gas regions accounting for more than 80 percent of global production. It will also have the ability to assess emissions from other human-made sources.

Like EDF’s efforts using technological innovation to drive environmental change, the MethaneSAT mission is about turning data into action.

Data from MethaneSAT, which will be available free for anyone to use, will help both companies and policymakers spot problems, identify solutions and track progress reducing emissions.

Video: Watch as EDF's president shares the vision of MethaneSAT in this TED Talk.

And it will give the public objective assurance that both industry and government are delivering reductions.

Fred Krupp, EDF's president, unveiled the idea for MethaneSAT in April 2018 in a TED Talk at TED’s flagship event, as part of The Audacious Project, successor to the TED Prize.

The purpose of MethaneSAT is to serve as a critical resource for realizing our goal of reducing methane emissions from a diversity of sources, especially global oil and gas.

A 45 percent reduction in oil and gas methane emissions by 2025 would deliver the same 20-year climate benefit as closing one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.

Cutting these emissions is the fastest, cheapest thing we can do to slow the rate of warming today, even as we continue to attack carbon dioxide emissions.

Drawing from expertise and research

MethaneSAT is due to launch in 2021. The team responsible for getting it off the ground includes Tom Ingersoll, a successful satellite entrepreneur with three decades of experience, and a long list of experts in spaceflight, remote sensing and atmospheric sciences.

Steven Hamburg and Tom Ingersoll

Steven Hamburg, left, EDF's chief scientist, and Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project director, pictured at Harvard University

And the MethaneSAT team has partnered with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to develop the science required for the mission.

We’ve learned that emissions are much higher than either industry or government previously recognized, and occur across the supply chain.

The challenge is, the sources are intermittent, unpredictable and widespread, making it hard to predict where they’ll occur.

That means ongoing monitoring and measurement are essential. By providing reliable, fully transparent data on a worldwide scale, MethaneSAT will help transform a serious climate threat into a crucial opportunity.

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