NASA project uses satellites to identify greenhouse gas super-emitters

Greenhouse gas super-emitters are exactly what they sound like: Individual sources like landfills, dairy farms, or leaking pipelines generating enormous amounts of planet-warming emissions, namely methane and carbon dioxide. In the fight against climate change, these big players must be taken out if we want to reduce emissions in an impactful way.

Fortunately, NASA has partnered with non-profit Carbon Mapper to launch a project that aims to locate and identify super-emitters using a fleet of special satellites. The new project was announced last week and involves the participation of multiple entities. In addition to NASA and Carbon Mapper, the State of California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Planet, a company that designs, builds, and launches satellites, will all work together for the common goal of ridding the earth of its biggest polluters.

The plan has three phases, the first of which has already been completed. This first stage involved the initial engineering and development of the project. The second stage requires NASA and Planet to work together to build two satellites that will be launched in 2023. The final phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.

What makes these satellites so remarkable is the imaging spectrometer build by NASA’s JPL. The imaging spectrometer breaks down visible light into hundreds of colors; this means that chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide will have individual signatures. Once the data is collected from the satellites, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors through an open data portal. Through this portal, researchers will be able to identify emission sources as well as study and quantify the damage being done to the environment.

According to Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, “super-emitters are often intermittent, but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them then you can get a big bang for your buck.”

All entities involved in this ambitious project hope that these satellites will provide California and the world with a better way to pinpoint, address, and reverse the negative effects of human-driven climate change.

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