MethaneSAT is Aotearoa New Zealand’s first government-funded space mission. It is a joint American-New Zealand collaboration to detect methane emissions. The goal is to use data from satellite observations to locate and measure methane emissions with a key focus on ‘fugitive’ leaks from oil and gas operations. Fixing these leaks can potentially cut emissions around the world by 45% and will have a similar impact to shutting down 1,300 coal-fired power plants! The satellite will also measure emissions from agriculture and natural sources like wetlands.
MethaneSAT is the first satellite of its kind. It was designed and built by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit organisation whose original members played a role in the banning of DDT (a toxic pesticide) more than 60 years ago. MethaneSAT is unique in many ways. It will focus only on methane rather than a range of greenhouse gases. The data it collects will be available to the public free of charge. EDF wants everyone interested in methane reduction to be able to view and compare progress across industries and countries.
A continuous stream of fresh data will help operators find and fix problems faster, at less cost. It will enable governments and empower the public to see whether methane emissions are being managed effectively.Mark Brownstein, Senior Vice President of Energy, Environmental Defense Fund
MethaneSAT is a compact Earth observation satellite – around the size of a minifridge and weighing 350 kg. It will be launched into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. MethaneSAT will be in a Sun-synchronous polar orbit about 600 km above the Earth. A Sun-synchronous orbit matches the rate at which the Earth goes around the Sun. This orbit provides consistent lighting conditions of the Earth’s surface, which allows for similar comparisons over the months and years. It will orbit the Earth every 100 minutes, passing over the North and South Poles. The article Measuring methane from space explains how MethaneSAT gathers data and sends it back to Earth.
The MethaneSAT mission is unique in that it delivers methane sources. The measurement of the methane is only the first part of the story. The next part of the story is asking where did that methane come from?Professor David Noone, MethaneSAT science mission
Aotearoa New Zealand’s role
New Zealand has dual roles in MethaneSAT. The government’s New Zealand Space Agency contributes funding to both technical and scientific programmes. The Mission Operations Control Centre (MOCC) is located at the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute. The engineers at mission control will drive the satellite – using thrusters to maintain the orbit or reposition the satellite to avoid space debris. They will also ensure the satellite has sufficient power and data storage and is safe from the extreme temperatures in space. Mission control works closely with the science team to collect data from areas of interest.
Rocket Lab is helping to establish and operate the MOCC for the first few months before handing it over to Te Pūnaha Ātea.
World leaders in methane measurements
Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) is leading a team from NIWA and other research organisations to carry out the science component – an agricultural methane detection programme. This team is developing the modelling tools to interpret the information that comes from satellite measurements.
We are going to use Aotearoa New Zealand as a natural laboratory to develop and comprehensively test this technology to detect agricultural emissions from space.Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, MethaneSAT science mission
New Zealand scientists are recognised as world leaders in greenhouse gas measurements. Research stations at Baring Head and Lauder have been collecting atmospheric data for more than 50 years. New Zealand scientists have also developed a comprehensive inventory of methane emissions from agriculture and wetlands – one of the best in the world. This information will help to test how accurately MethaneSAT measures methane from agricultural and natural systems. MethaneSAT will help New Zealand assess the effectiveness of its methane reduction strategies and help other countries gain a better understanding of their agricultural emissions.
Nature of science
Data and the interpretation of data are at the core of MethaneSAT. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that, to fully understand the problem of methane emissions and to find solutions, scientists and policy makers need more and better data about how large methane emissions are, where they come from, how we can reduce them and how we can measure progress over time.
Measuring greenhouse gas emissions provides short explanations of different measurement techniques used in New Zealand.
Find out where Aotearoa’s greenhouse gases come from and how production-based emissions compare with consumption-based emissions.
New Zealand scientists are looking for ways to reduce agricultural methane emissions. Read about plantain research and breeding low-methane sheep.
Visit our Methane – a potent greenhouse gas Pinterest collection for more resources.
Learn more about MethaneSAT.
Find out more in this RadioNZ Our Changing World programme An eye in the sky to detect methane emissions from December 2022.
Find out how the Environmental Defense Fund is working to cut climate pollution.
Read about space science and engineering research taking place at Te Pūnaha Ātea.
This resource has been produced with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the support of the New Zealand Space Agency.