SpaceX launches Google-backed satellite to fight climate change

The world's most advanced methane-detecting satellite was launched into the earth's atmosphere Monday – its mission to track the methane emissions produced by the leading global oil and gas companies.

The innovative satellite - dubbed MethaneSat – blasted off from the Vandenberg Space Force base in California just before 5:00 p.m. EST. under the direction of Elon Musk’s SpaceX on board the Falcon9 rocket.

The spacecraft will join a growing fleet of satellites already circling the Earth, collecting and sending back data on greenhouse emissions, in an attempt to fight climate change and slow global warming.

The MethaneSat mission is a joint effort backed by Google and the climate change advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which collaborated on the development of the satellite with the New Zealand Space Agency and Harvard University.

Another fleet of twelve satellite-based emissions trackers known as the GHGSat – first launched in 2016 by the European Space Agency – are also providing methane emissions data to scientists.

Data from MethaneSAT will enable both companies and regulators to track emissions and give stakeholders – citizens, governments, investors, and gas importers – free, near-real-time access to the data and the unprecedented ability to compare the results against emission goals and obligations, the EDF said.

Expected to circle the earth 15 times a day, the MethaneSat “will see and quantify total methane emissions over wide areas that other satellites can't and identify large emitters in places they aren't looking,” the EDF said.

Looking to the future

The mission is expected to bring accountability to the more than 50 oil and gas companies who pledged to cut emissions deeply and ratchet up climate change at the 2023 Dubai COP28 climate summit held in December.

Part of that pledge includes zeroing out methane and eliminate routine gas flaring, while helping companies gear up for upcoming regulations in the US and the EU.

"We'll be able to see who the laggards are, but hopefully they will use that information in a constructive way to improve their performance," said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy transition at EDF.

MethaneSat rendering
A rendering of the MethaneSat satellite that will be used to track methane emissions. Data collected and sent back from space will processed by the Google Cloud and analyzed using AI. Image by MethaneSAT | Reuters.

In January, the Biden Administration proposed rules for a fee on excess methane emissions, which will require accurate emissions reporting, the EDF said.

The EU, Japan, and Korea all committed to plans that will require empirical emissions data from gas importers and suppliers.

According to the EDF, methane emissions are a potent greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, and the oil and gas sector is considered the world’s largest industrial source of methane emissions, surpassing agricultural waste and landfills.

The interactive emissions data will be available to the public online on the EDF website and the Google Earth Engine research analytics platform. All the incoming data will be processed using AI through the Google Cloud.

Other backers of the satellite project include the Bezos Earth Fund, Arnold Ventures, the Robertson Foundation and the TED Audacious Project.

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