A Security Camera for the Planet
A new satellite, funded by a nonprofit, aims to pinpoint emissions of methane—a gas that plays a major role in global warming.
When his phone rang, Berrien Moore III, the dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, was fumbling with his bow tie, preparing for a formal ceremony honoring a colleague. He glanced down at the number and recognized it as NASA headquarters. This was a bad sign, he thought. In Moore’s experience, bureaucrats never called after hours with good news.
For roughly six years, Moore and his colleagues had been working on a space-based scientific instrument called the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, or GeoCarb. NASA had approved their proposal in 2016; it was now 2022, and GeoCarb was being built by Lockheed Martin, in Palo Alto, California. Once it was in space and mounted to a communications satellite, GeoCarb would scan land in the Western Hemisphere continuously in strips, taking meticulous measurements of three carbon-based gases: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. It would give scientists a detailed view of the carbon cycle—the process by which carbon circulates through the Earth’s forests, lakes, trees, oceans, ice, and other natural features.
An off-kilter version of this cycle, altered by human activity, is warming the planet; understanding its workings is vital for comprehending climate change. But scientists see the carbon cycle less clearly than they need to. NASA operates two Orbiting Carbon Observatories, which can detect carbon dioxide, but neither can see methane—a version of carbon that, in the short term, has more warming potential than CO2. There are a few methane-aware assets in space, among them TROPOMI, which was developed by the European Space Agency and the Netherlands Space Office, and GHGSat, a constellation of nine small spacecraft owned by a private company. Atmospheric scientists also study methane using planes with special sensors. But these instruments offer only zoomed-out and zoomed-in perspectives on methane; using them to help understand the carbon cycle is like trying to drive from Boston to New York by consulting only Google Earth and Google Street View. What’s needed is a medium-scale view—the atmospheric equivalent of Waze.
Our relative blindness to methane emissions is particularly worrisome. Methane has warmed the Earth by about half a degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and could add nearly another degree to the temperature by 2100; by one estimate, readily available methane-reduction measures, if they were introduced in the next decade, could reduce warming by some fraction of a degree by midcentury, and perhaps by a half-degree by its end. Such a change could be enough to avert a substantial amount of climate disruption. But mitigation is made more difficult because regulators and watchdogs have limited knowledge of where the methane is coming from and why.
There are different ways to tackle these problems. MethaneSAT, a satellite being developed by the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, aimed to focus exclusively on methane, identifying and characterizing sources of emissions around the world. Moore’s project, GeoCarb, would provide researchers with a continuously updated map of greenhouse gases in the Western Hemisphere, helping them answer important questions about the carbon cycle more generally. (Why do oceans and tropical forests absorb more carbon under different climate conditions? How do phenomena such as California wildfires and El Niño and La Niña affect the flow of carbon?) If both projects succeeded, they would offer unprecedented views, at useful scales, of processes fundamental to climate change.
In Oklahoma, Moore set aside his bow tie and answered the phone. He recognized the voice of Karen St. Germain, the director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. Moore’s intuition had been correct: GeoCarb was being cancelled. St. Germain explained that the mission was twice over budget and two years late. NASA had also recently announced that EMIT—an instrument on the I.S.S. that is creating a mineral map of Earth’s arid regions—could detect extremely large methane emissions. EMIT, Moore felt, was a way for the agency to check the methane box on the cheap. But its data, he believed, would be of limited use.
Moore hung up the phone, frustrated and angry about the blow to his own plans. But he was also concerned. By cancelling GeoCarb—its only spacecraft in active development designed to detect methane, and an instrument key to making major advances in our understanding of the carbon cycle—NASA had left scientists with less climate data, and policymakers with fewer options. For methane, much of the burden now rested on the Environmental Defense Fund. But could a nonprofit organization that had always been earthbound really succeed in designing its own satellite and getting it into space?
Virtually all life on Earth depends on the carbon cycle. While it’s alive, a tree pulls carbon dioxide from the air; when the tree dies, oxygen-breathing bacteria break it down, releasing its stored carbon as carbon dioxide. Ideally, an adjacent tree takes in the newly liberated CO2; when that tree falls, another absorbs the molecules. It’s an elegant system.
The carbon cycle goes on even in places that are oxygen-deprived. Sometimes, a tree falls into a marsh, or other similar environment; beneath the surface or underwater, there isn’t enough oxygen for aerobic bacteria to do the work of decomposition. Instead, anaerobic microbes called methanogens turn the tree’s carbon into methane, a molecule of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms—CH4, rather than CO2. Slowly, this methane seeps out of the muck or water and back into the air, where it survives for about a dozen years until it’s broken down into CO2.
Since pre-industrial times, the quantity of methane in the air has more than doubled. The increase has come largely from three sources: the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels; the decomposition of waste garbage in landfills; and agriculture, particularly the farming of livestock, which digest grass with the help of methanogens, and the creation of rice paddies, which are essentially artificial wetlands. Compared with carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane is short-lived. But the increase in methane is especially troubling because it absorbs and reëmits energy with striking efficiency. At the same time, the surplus of methane means that the atmosphere is slower to break it down.
The math of methane has consequences for climate change that may not be obvious at first. Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, started thinking seriously about the methane problem in the two-thousands. He noticed that methane was often deëmphasized in discussions about climate change; this, he thought, was because, since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in the nineteen-nineties, century-long metrics had driven the global-warming conversation. On that timescale, carbon dioxide was the obvious threat. But, in a twenty-year period, methane has the potential to warm the Earth eighty-four times more than carbon dioxide. It was, therefore, critical to lower methane concentrations as quickly as possible.
In 2015, while Moore and his team were waiting for NASA to move forward with their GeoCarb proposal, E.D.F., which employs about a thousand people and has three million members and activists around the world, was in the midst of a six-year study of methane emissions from across the American natural-gas supply chain. The effort—a collaboration with forty institutions, fifty companies, and more than a hundred researchers and industry experts—ultimately found that emissions were at least sixty-per-cent higher than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated. In the Barnett Shale area of North Texas—perhaps the largest onshore reserve of natural gas in the world—researchers discovered emissions that were ninety-per-cent higher than E.P.A. estimates. The methane problem was worse than many had thought.
In theory, the oil-and-gas industry has a strong incentive to stop methane leaks, because methane is, in itself, a commodity: natural gas, which is used in more than half of American homes, consists primarily of methane. But fossil-fuel companies, even when they know about methane leaks, sometimes conclude that plugging them won’t be cost-effective; they even deliberately vent the gas into the atmosphere while extracting oil. The E.P.A., for its part, has an imperfect method for estimating unknown methane emissions: if a facility contains a particular control, valve, or pump, regulators multiply the number of units installed by emissions estimates for that piece of equipment. The E.P.A. works to verify that reported data are accurate, and updates its estimates when new emissions are found. But, if a facility forgets to put a certain class of equipment on its inventory, or doesn’t know about a leaky pipe or broken seal, it’s as though the emissions don’t exist.
Hamburg, alarmed by the numbers the project had uncovered, asked Robert Harriss, who was advising the methane program at E.D.F., whether they could expand their measurement effort. Harriss, who’d run Earth science for NASA, called Steven Wofsy, an atmospheric and environmental scientist at Harvard, with whom he’d been doing methane work since the eighties. We’re doing this big project in Texas, Utah, and elsewhere and finding some really high emissions, Wofsy recalled Harriss saying. We want to go global.
Hamburg felt that E.D.F. had exhausted the practical possibilities for measuring methane on Earth. The only option left was space. He asked Wofsy a series of hypothetical questions: If E.D.F. could somehow get something into space, what would that spacecraft have to do in order to replicate the Barnett Shale study for the whole world? What measurements would it need to make to identify the locations and quantity of emissions, and to track them through time? If E.D.F. could take such methane measurements from orbit with unimpeachable precision, it could not only make a profound scientific contribution—it could publicly identify the countries and companies at fault. Unlike NASA, E.D.F. would be perfectly willing to name and shame.
In graduate school, Wofsy had studied spectroscopy—the detection of substances based on the way they absorb light. This was the basic technology that such a satellite would be using. He also had expertise in a technique called inversion modelling, which uses fine-grained measurements to reveal where a plume of methane is coming from and how much is being emitted. Wofsy and his team soon calculated that E.D.F. would need an instrument of exquisite sensitivity to find and measure specific sources of emissions effectively from space. To discern patterns of methane flow, the system would have to be able to spot gradients of methane concentration at a scale of two parts per billion over distances of ten to twenty kilometres—a complex challenge.
At Harvard, Hamburg and Wofsy brought in Kelly Chance, a senior physicist at the Center for Astrophysics, and Peter Cheimets, a mechanical engineer with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In a series of whiteboard sessions, Cheimets outlined an instrument that could achieve two-parts-per-billion sensitivity. By September, 2015, E.D.F.’s satellite was beginning to come into focus. Wofsy, Hamburg, and his team started calling it MethaneSAT. After one of the whiteboard sessions, Hamburg walked outside, pulled out his phone, and called his boss—Fred Krupp, E.D.F.’s president.
“We can actually do this,” he told Krupp. “But it won’t be cheap.”
“If it’s feasible, we’ll work to raise the money,” Krupp said.
The effort would be worth it, they knew, because MethaneSAT would solve a fundamental problem with methane measurement: scale.
The European Space Agency’s TROPOMI circles the Earth fourteen times a day, providing scientists with a big-picture view, on continental scales.
It can see large methane concentrations along its orbital path, but can’t pinpoint emissions sources.
A couple of years later, Tom Ingersoll, a fifty-five-year-old mechanical engineer and a central figure in the private space industry, heard from a headhunter, who told him that the Environmental Defense Fund—a nonprofit he didn’t exactly associate with aerospace—was looking for someone to help it build a satellite. Ingersoll had begun his career working with former Apollo astronauts to design and construct experimental spacecraft; he’d founded and sold multiple companies, including one that built ground stations for spacecraft in orbit. In 2014, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, a firm that made high-resolution Earth-observation satellites at a fraction of the cost of traditional aerospace companies, and Ingersoll, who was Skybox’s C.E.O., entered semi-retirement.
Ingersoll rejected the offer—but he also didn’t like the idea of E.D.F. getting taken advantage of by an inexperienced space startup. He flew to New York City to meet with Hamburg. The more he learned about MethaneSAT, the more he saw that E.D.F.’s budget bordered on fantasy. “If you’re not willing or able to double this budget, do not even consider this spacecraft,” he warned Hamburg, over dinner. Almost against his will, Ingersoll got pulled into a series of meetings with E.D.F. “You’re going to need the best technical team on the planet,” he told Krupp. Ingersoll agreed to help the organization assemble a team; by 2018, even though he was still technically a consultant, he was actually directing the development of the satellite.
In March, Ingersoll was in Boulder, Colorado, at a facility belonging to Ball Aerospace, which is building MethaneSAT. Ball manufactured the Kepler space telescope, which has found thousands of exoplanets, as well as the golden, honeycomb-like mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope; engineers there are now working on NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is designed to study dark energy and exoplanets. Its engineers are currently integrating and testing the spectrometer and spacecraft, and will likely deliver the finished product later this year to SpaceX, which will launch it on a Falcon 9 rocket.
Ball, like Ingersoll, was hesitant about taking on the MethaneSAT project. “The hard part—the barrier—was we had never done business with an N.G.O., so they didn’t have guaranteed funding,” Alberto Conti, Ball’s vice-president and general manager for civil space, recalled. “We are not a huge company, so there is an opportunity cost. And it was a hard sell because the instrument is very difficult to make, and we want to make some money at the end.” Ingersoll addressed Ball’s concerns partly through recruiting: “I brought all my friends!” he told me, with a laugh. He pulled together a group of experts, centered on Joe Rothenberg, a former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who, as the leader of the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, helmed a team that corrected it when it turned out to be blurry. Getting MethaneSAT to launch is slated to cost around ninety million dollars. (There will be more operating expenses after that.) E.D.F. raised the money in a series of campaigns, one of them facilitated by Chris Anderson, the head of TED Talks, through a TED-affiliated funding initiative called the Audacious Project, in which the billionaires John and Laura Arnold were major donors. The Robertson Foundation, a philanthropy that focusses on “high-impact” projects, contributed to both the early development of MethaneSAT and its eventual construction.
On the shop floor, tattooed tradesmen in T-shirts and ball caps worked on the satellite, their camo Coleman lunchboxes resting on crates of spacecraft parts. MethaneSAT, without its solar panels, is about the size of a small refrigerator, and when Ingersoll showed it to me it was mounted to a large steel rack in a huge clean room. In some places it was wrapped with mirrorlike shocks of thermal insulation, and in others it was shielded with a sort of translucent orange tape. Three workers, covered head to toe in white “bunny suits” that left only their eyes exposed, turned the spacecraft this way and that using a hand crank. One wall of the clean room was made entirely of HEPA filters, which provided a constant stream of air to prevent dust from settling; the workers themselves were grounded with wires to prevent electrostatic discharge.
Ingersoll pointed to the satellite’s two large sensors, which jutted from it like an enormous pair of binoculars. “The left sensor measures methane, the right sensor measures oxygen,” he said. Cables ran from MethaneSAT to a rack of electronics, which fed it a kind of simulation of space: as it sits in the clean room, the satellite might think that it is firing its thrusters, or collecting new methane measurements. Once MethaneSAT is fully assembled, it will be stress-tested in a special chamber where it can be exposed to the tortures of space: an unforgiving vacuum and temperature swings of two hundred degrees Celsius. (Space is very hot or very cold, depending on whether you’re in sun or shadow.) Engineers will also mount the spacecraft to a shake table to simulate the vibrations and torsions of a launch.
“Everyone involved in this thing agrees—this was an awesome project,” Ingersoll said, assessing the satellite. “When it came to motivating us, the quality of the project and the impact of the mission were No. 1, and the people we got to work with were No. 2.” At Ball, Conti told me, the success of MethaneSAT has led to a shift in corporate culture. The company may be more open to similar projects in the future.
When MethaneSAT launches, what will it find? E.D.F.’s work at the Barnett Shale suggests an unhappy answer: it is likely to discover that methane levels are higher than we thought, and to find the gas in places we don’t expect. Even infrastructure that’s known to emit methane doesn’t always do so steadily; emissions can be intermittent and vary with temperature and weather. This means that many sources of emissions will have escaped even regular inspections. Since MethaneSAT is a global monitoring spacecraft—it orbits pole to pole as the Earth spins below—it will discover which nations are underreporting their methane emissions, identifying specifically where those emissions are coming from.
Some methane emissions involve natural systems. At higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, the ground is frozen perpetually, and the dead plant and animal matter that’s trapped in the permafrost may never have had an opportunity to decompose; as the world warms, the permafrost may thaw, and yet more methane and natural gas may be released, which could unleash further warming. The intensity of these emissions, and their effect on the global climate, is currently unknown.
A few years ago, Genevieve Plant, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, flew above the Hudson River in a small twin-engine plane, taking methane measurements. While the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island drifted below, air swept into tubing running from the outside of the plane into a spectrometer in the cabin, which in turn sent data to an onboard computer. Plant watched as the numbers piled up onscreen. “We found that methane coming from these older East Coast cities was higher than what was being inventoried—higher than our current understanding of estimates of cities based on ‘bottom-up accounting,’ ” she recalled. Emissions were roughly twice what had been reported by the E.P.A.—probably, Plant thought, because of worn-out infrastructure such as leaky pipes and old stoves. (The E.P.A. has since incorporated these kinds of data into its estimates.) Building a complete picture of the planet’s methane load, from the global scale to the local one, will require combining many kinds of observations. “You really need different platforms, looking at different scales,” Plant said. In all likelihood, airplane data will dovetail with scans from MethaneSAT and other satellites to present an alarming, but perhaps actionable, picture.
GeoCarb, the satellite that NASA scrapped, is currently sitting in a clean room in Palo Alto, California, in a state of near-completion. Despite NASA’s cancellation, Lockheed Martin used the project’s remaining funds to begin its systems-integration phase, creating a working instrument. The company plans to begin calibrating GeoCarb this summer, and to deliver it to NASA by Christmas. “I’m going to find some nice Christmas wrapping paper, and we’re going to wrap the instrument up and ship it to NASA,” Moore said. He thinks that the final testing and calibration of GeoCarb will cost between fifteen million and twenty-five million dollars; once that’s complete, it can be mounted to any spacecraft launched into geostationary orbit. “MethaneSAT is just looking at methane,” Moore said. “They’re going to find where the bad guys are.” But, he went on, “we still need more data to model how much CO2 is moving around, where it’s coming from, where it’s going to—the sources and sinks.” (NASA has not recommitted to launching GeoCarb; “I look forward to seeing what they will be able to deliver,” Karen St. Germain said.)
In the nineteen-eighties, scientists began to look closely at holes in the ozone forming over the Earth’s poles, and traced them to the use of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals in a wide variety of products and industrial processes. In 1987, every single member of the United Nations ratified the Montreal Protocol, which phased out chlorofluorocarbons. Ozone in the stratosphere has since recovered rapidly; it will likely return to levels found in 1980 in a few decades. The data returned by MethaneSAT could lead to a similarly unanimous response—or not. The philosopher Amélie Rorty used the term “akratic break” to describe the moment at which someone’s actions diverge from what they know to be best for them. (In ancient Greek, akrasia is the state of acting against one’s better judgment.) Arguably, the climate crisis has been prolonged by a series of akratic breaks.
Perhaps MethaneSAT will make akrasia harder to sustain. The organization has promised “radical transparency” in its handling of the satellite’s data, which will be shared with the world free of charge, through a dedicated online portal. To aid in its dissemination, the data will be released rapidly and in multiple forms—including “flux” maps that reveal where methane is coming from. Once it’s in space, MethaneSAT will map and quantify emissions from more than three hundred target areas which, together, will account for more than ninety per cent of global oil and gas production.
“We built the satellite, and we are building the outreach,” Hamburg told me. “We have social psychologists figuring out how people perceive such data, and what’s the best way to show it. Advocacy teams are preparing the global community to get that data and act on it. The only measure of our success will be our impact in reducing methane emissions.” MethaneSAT’s mission is both scientific and rhetorical. The government didn’t launch it, but Hamburg hopes that policymakers—and the rest of us—will respond to its message. ♦
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the effect of carbon monoxide on global warming.