California Is Launching Monitoring Satellites To Hunt Super-Emitter
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California Is Launching Monitoring Satellites To Hunt Super-Emitters

California and partners will launch two satellites by 2023 to spot and monitor plumes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane – with dozen more to follow if all goes right. The elimination of these planet-warming greenhouse gases is essential to curbing climate change.

Private philanthropists, including Michael Bloomberg, are financing the $100 million Carbon Mapper project. It aims to advance efforts in tracking concentrated emissions of CO2 and methane rising from leaky pipelines, fossil fuel power plants, and abandoned oil wells. Until now, satellites have lacked the focus and resolution to monitor point sources of these greenhouse gases rigorously.

Riley Duren, a remote-sensing scientist at the University of Arizona and Carbon Mapper’s CEO, said:

We’re going after the big emitters. [The ultimate goal is to be] like the weather service for methane and CO2.

California Is Launching Monitoring Satellites To Hunt Super-Emitter
(Credit: Lanamais / iStock)

Ray Nassar, an atmospheric scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada who is unaffiliated with the project, said:

The announcement of this project has the potential to shake up the field of greenhouse gas monitoring and verification. The satellites will be immediately useful for tracking fugitive methane emissions, which have more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 emissions in the short term.


Finding, pinpointing, and stopping the big leaks is thus key.

The satellites will be made and managed by a California company called Planet that already operates a constellation of Earth-imaging satellites. The spacecraft will rely on NASA-developed “hyperspectral” imaging spectrometers.

The human eye gathers light in just a few discrete wavelength channels. These spectrometers, however, capture reflected sunlight and subdivide it into over 400 wavelength channels across the visible and beyond into the infrared. Specific chemistries can be linked to light intensity across these channels, reflecting the abundances of certain gases in the air molecules below.

Greg Asner, an Arizona State University, Tempe, ecologist who will lead several of Carbon Mapper’s scientific applications, said:

It’s a molecular mapping system. We call it map and cap technology.

The satellites will also detect chemical signatures on the ground and in the oceans to help evaluate forests, crops, and coral health. It will do this by detecting the signatures for excess fungus or salts and measuring the intensity of green chlorophyll.

They can even use the spacecraft for prospecting for minerals in remote regions.

Robert Green, a JPL remote-sensing scientist, said:

The sensors can reliably catch CO2 and methane plumes, which was unexpected. People didn’t believe you could do this.


Even snow and ice pop out in these sensors. Snow is one of the most colorful materials on Earth if you look beyond visible light.

Planet envisions building a commercial constellation of similar satellites should Carbon Mapper’s first two satellites prove successful. The constellation would revisit every spot planetwide once a day, then sell the data to companies and regulators. However, at first, they won’t offer global coverage.

Jorn Herner at California’s Air Resources Board (which is the state regulator) said:

Satellites that can revisit a site every week or so, checking for problems and confirming that leaks are repaired, will help immensely. If you have an eye in the sky, the efficacy of our requirements goes up significantly.

The first two satellites are about the size of a washing machine and weigh around 200 kilograms each. They provide imagery with a 30-meter resolution.

At first, Planet will be targeting regions in California known to host super-emitters – like oil and gas drilling, power plants, and livestock operations. The company will revisit each zone every few weeks.

The emissions data will be publicly available in the hopes that businesses and governments will do more to stop leaks and tamp down discharges. The data will consist of calculations deduced from the plume length and intensity.

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