Chris Middleton reports on an exciting new climate initiative – and explains why concepts like this are vitally important for industry to take seriously.

An optical sensor manufactured by Canadian emissions-monitoring firm ABB has been deployed onboard GHGSat’s Hugo satellite, which was launched by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on January, 24th 2021 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station .

The optical sensor can map methane emissions from space at a resolution that is 100 times higher than other sensors, according to an announcement from the company.

This means that the individual source of a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission can be identified from orbit, rather than simply revealing the broad area where methane has been detected.

But why are initiatives like this important?

Methane is one of a number of gasses that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise and threaten the climate.

Other GHGs include: carbon dioxide (generated from manufacturing techniques and by burning fossil fuels and other biological materials); nitrous oxide (generated by fossil fuels and the treatment of wastewater); and fluorinated gasses (potent GHGs emitted by industrial processes).

Although methane contributes a much smaller percentage of overall GHG emissions from human activity – roughly 9.5 percent, compared with carbon dioxide’s 81 percent – it is far more efficient at trapping radiation in the atmosphere than CO2.

According to figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the negative impact of methane is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide’s over a 100-year period.

The detection of all GHGs and their sources is a priority for governments and industries worldwide, as average global temperatures have risen by 1.1 degrees centigrade since industrialisation, with rises of between three and five degrees detected periodically at the poles.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), almost all of the global temperature increase since the mid-19th Century can be attributed to industrial processes.

For anyone believing that this is merely part of a natural cyclical change, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, according to IPCC data.

GHGSat is one of a new breed of companies that specialises in high-resolution GHG monitoring from space, providing actionable emissions data.

A constellation of 10 ABB-enhanced satellites will be in orbit by the end of 2022, forming what is claimed to be the first private network dedicated to monitoring the problem. The aim is to help governments, industries, and individual enterprises worldwide to meet reduction targets and thus help to slow or reduce global warming.

“We selected ABB for its ability to deliver world-class instruments while meeting the challenges of a new space company like ours,“ said Stephane Germain, CEO of GHGSat. “We strive to innovate for the needs of the future, and we’re excited to work with ABB to achieve that.”

GHGSat announced the constellation contract with ABB in October 2020, with first deliveries against it due later this year. The unit launched by SpaceX was procured by GHGSat separately two years ago, ahead of the contract win.

  • The project reinforces the message that the space technologies sector is not solely about exploring the universe from Earth or near-Earth orbit, but also about monitoring the planet from space and providing in-depth data insights.

In related news this week, the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which works alongside UK Research & Investment (UKRI) on behalf of the government, announced the launch of a new interactive reference map of the burgeoning space tech sector.

The map includes: over 340 space-tech manufacturing businesses, including launch vehicle providers, satellite manufacturers, component manufacturers, and materials suppliers; over 300 satellite applications companies; 44 space operation firms, including launch services, launch brokerages, and proprietary satellite operators; 170 organisations offering ancillary services; 67 research groups and universities across the UK; and a number of incubation centres, networks, spaceports, and funding opportunities.