PHOTO: Mission Operations Control Centre at the University of Auckland. Credit: University of Auckland

Tracking the world’s methane emissions from space – Expert Reaction

The MethaneSAT satellite is set to launch soon, with its mission control to be based in Aotearoa.

The project is New Zealand’s first-ever government-funded space mission, however, it’s primarily funded by a US-based nonprofit.

Scientists in New Zealand will use the satellite to study global methane emissions from agriculture, while the US-side of the project is focused on finding and measuring methane leaks from oil and gas production.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Chris Jackson, Spacecraft Mission Operations Director, University of Auckland, comments:

“MethaneSAT provides a great opportunity to further develop New Zealand’s space industry. Here at the university, we’ll be operating the spacecraft once the early operations are complete, and we’re excited to get students involved with this work as it provides hands-on experience that’s complimentary to their academic studies.

“Even before launch, MethaneSAT has helped develop infrastructure and expertise within New Zealand that will help our space industry compete in the ever growing global space market.

“The Mission Operations Control Centre at the University of Auckland that has been developed for MethaneSAT is a piece of national infrastructure, available to support industry and research organisations within New Zealand and abroad. We have both the facilities, and experienced staff available to support MethaneSAT, and a wide range of future missions.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflict of interest. I’m managing the MethaneSAT contract on behalf of the University of Auckland.”

Professor Richard Easther, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, comments:

“The launch of MethaneSAT marks a major step for New Zealand. It is our first government-backed space mission, and it will make a big contribution to tracking down a key contributor to climate change across the globe.

“In terms of its capabilities, what I told TVNZ when it was announced in late 2019 is just as true today: ‘It’s the start of us being able to develop an independent space programme to answer questions about the environment, or about science, that contribute to the economy – and to actually have ownership of that process. It’s going to give New Zealanders direct experience with the control and operation of the spacecraft, and that’s going to give us capacity as a country to do other things in space. It will answer questions that New Zealanders care about and it will train New Zealanders to play a role in the space economy.’

“That said, we still don’t have a good plan for what to do next. Our investment in MethaneSAT came about when we chased an opportunity that presented itself and it was not competed against alternatives. That is a very risky strategy in a country that has not always made good decisions about its science investments.

“In a lot of little countries their space projects amount to ‘participation trophies’ — the reasoning is that since everything that happens in space is exciting, your project will be exciting simply because it is happening in space. However, if you are involved with space you know that some efforts actually make a much bigger contribution than others, even if they involve the same amount of effort and resource. The ambition that motivated our involvement with MethaneSAT is a reminder that we should work harder to make the most of New Zealand’s unique position as a small nation that is home to one of the world’s most sophisticated space companies.

“We have the opportunity to do things that will gain the attention of the world over the coming decade and we should be aiming to make other players in the field say, ‘Did you see what the Kiwis just did? I wish we had thought of that!’ It’s not about money, it is about making sure that we combine our talents and ambitions into a programme that can deliver on this dream.”

Conflict of interest statement: “None, but notes that he did participate in early discussions around New Zealand’s involvement with MethaneSAT and is a member of Te Punaha Ātea, the University of Auckland research centre that will support MethaneSAT operations. However, he is not directly involved with this effort and is speaking as an independent expert on space and science stategy and activity.”

Dr Johannes Laubach, Scientist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, comments:

“The primary purpose of the satellite MethaneSAT is to locate large point sources of methane, like leaks in natural-gas facilities and pipelines. Such leaks could be quite easily repaired, reducing methane emissions immediately and thus reducing global warming. The idea is that by publishing the satellite findings, the operators of leaky facilities will be put under pressure to take action.

“However, about half of the global methane emissions related to human activities are from agriculture (mainly livestock and rice-growing). These emissions are often much more ‘diffuse’, i.e., when looking from space they appear as of low intensity spread over large areas. In New Zealand, over 80% of methane emissions related to human activity come from cattle and sheep.

“New Zealand’s government is funding a research programme to explore whether the MethaneSAT data can be made useful to quantify regional agricultural emissions. The researchers will combine the satellite data of spatial methane distribution with wind field data and ground-based measurements of methane fluxes and atmospheric-column concentrations, and feed these into airflow models. Goals are to test how well source strengths and regions of origin can be inferred, and how they compare to inventory calculations of methane emissions.”

Conflict of interest statement: No conflict of interest. Dr Laubach is contributing to the MethaneSAT research programme.

Professor John Cater, Faculty of Engineering, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Measuring Aotearoa’s methane emissions is an important part of understanding our contributions to climate change. Our government has made a significant investment in the capability to operate spacecraft from New Zealand, starting with MethaneSAT, which will initially be controlled by RocketLab USA, then the University of Auckland’s Space Institute. This satellite is designed to provide data on emissions from large releases that can occur at oil and gas facilities.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I was employed by the University of Auckland during the time that the long-term contract to operate MethaneSAT was awarded.”

Dr Maria A. Pozza, Gravity Lawyers, comments:

“The launch demonstrates the continued strong international relations between New Zealand and the US. It further illustrates the flexibility of the New Zealand space legal framework to work efficiently with international partners on space projects especially under the complexity of the international space legal framework.”

No conflict of interest.