Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


Why Are There So Many Methane Satellites?

Over a dozen methane satellites are now circling the Earth — and more are on the way.

Heatmap Illustration/MethaneSAT LLC

On Monday afternoon, a satellite the size of a washing machine hitched a ride on a SpaceX rocket and was launched into orbit. MethaneSAT, as the new satellite is called, is the latest to join more than a dozen other instruments currently circling the Earth monitoring emissions of the ultra-powerful greenhouse gas methane. But it won’t be the last. Over the next several months, at least two additional methane-detecting satellites from the U.S. and Japan are scheduled to join the fleet.

There’s a joke among scientists that there are so many methane-detecting satellites in space that they are reducing global warming — not just by providing essential data about emissions, but by blocking radiation from the sun.

So why do we keep launching more?

Despite the small army of probes in orbit, and an increasingly large fleet of methane-detecting planes and drones closer to the ground, our ability to identify where methane is leaking into the atmosphere is still far too limited. Like carbon dioxide, sources of methane around the world are numerous and diffuse. They can be natural, like wetlands and oceans, or man-made, like decomposing manure on farms, rotting waste in landfills, and leaks from oil and gas operations.

There are big, unanswered questions about methane, about which sources are driving the most emissions, and consequently, about tackling climate change, that scientists say MethaneSAT will help solve. But even then, some say we’ll need to launch even more instruments into space to really get to the bottom of it all.

Measuring methane from space only began in 2009 with the launch of the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, or GOSAT, by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency. Previously, most of the world’s methane detectors were on the ground in North America. GOSAT enabled scientists to develop a more geographically diverse understanding of major sources of methane to the atmosphere.

Soon after, the Environmental Defense Fund, which led the development of MethaneSAT, began campaigning for better data on methane emissions. Through its own, on-the-ground measurements, the group discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates of leaks from U.S. oil and gas operations were totally off. EDF took this as a call to action. Because methane has such a strong warming effect, but also breaks down after about a decade in the atmosphere, curbing methane emissions can slow warming in the near-term.

“Some call it the low hanging fruit,” Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist at EDF leading the MethaneSAT project, said during a press conference on Friday. “I like to call it the fruit lying on the ground. We can really reduce those emissions and we can do it rapidly and see the benefits.”

But in order to do that, we need a much better picture than what GOSAT or other satellites like it can provide.

In the years since GOSAT launched, the field of methane monitoring has exploded. Today, there are two broad categories of methane instruments in space. Area flux mappers, like GOSAT, take global snapshots. They can show where methane concentrations are generally higher, and even identify exceptionally large leaks — so-called “ultra-emitters.” But the vast majority of leaks, big and small, are invisible to these instruments. Each pixel in a GOSAT image is 10 kilometers wide. Most of the time, there’s no way to zoom into the picture and see which facilities are responsible.

Jacob, D. J., Varon, D. J., Cusworth, D. H., Dennison, P. E., Frankenberg, C., Gautam, R., Guanter, L., Kelley, J., McKeever, J., Ott, L. E., Poulter, B., Qu, Z., Thorpe, A. K., Worden, J. R., and Duren, R. M.: Quantifying methane emissions from the global scale down to point sources using satellite observations of atmospheric methane, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 22, 9617–9646,, 2022.

Point source imagers, on the other hand, take much smaller photos that have much finer resolution, with pixel sizes down to just a few meters wide. That means they provide geographically limited data — they have to be programmed to aim their lenses at very specific targets. But within each image is much more actionable data.

For example, GHGSat, a private company based in Canada, operates a constellation of 12 point-source satellites, each one about the size of a microwave oven. Oil and gas companies and government agencies pay GHGSat to help them identify facilities that are leaking. Jean-Francois Gauthier, the director of business development at GHGSat, told me that each image taken by one of their satellites is 12 kilometers wide, but the resolution for each pixel is 25 meters. A snapshot of the Permian Basin, a major oil and gas producing region in Texas, might contain hundreds of oil and gas wells, owned by a multitude of companies, but GHGSat can tell them apart and assign responsibility.

“We’ll see five, 10, 15, 20 different sites emitting at the same time and you can differentiate between them,” said Gauthier. “You can see them very distinctly on the map and be able to say, alright, that’s an unlit flare, and you can tell which company it is, too.” Similarly, GHGSat can look at a sprawling petrochemical complex and identify the exact tank or pipe that has sprung a leak.

But between this extremely wide-angle lens, and the many finely-tuned instruments pointing at specific targets, there’s a gap. “It might seem like there’s a lot of instruments in space, but we don’t have the kind of coverage that we need yet, believe it or not,” Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told me. He has been working with the nonprofit Carbon Mapper on a new constellation of point source imagers, the first of which is supposed to launch later this year.

The reason why we don’t have enough coverage has to do with the size of the existing images, their resolution, and the amount of time it takes to get them. One of the challenges, Thorpe said, is that it’s very hard to get a continuous picture of any given leak. Oil and gas equipment can spring leaks at random. They can leak continuously or intermittently. If you’re just getting a snapshot every few weeks, you may not be able to tell how long a leak lasted, or you might miss a short but significant plume. Meanwhile, oil and gas fields are also changing on a weekly basis, Joost de Gouw, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told me. New wells are being drilled in new places — places those point-source imagers may not be looking at.

“There’s a lot of potential to miss emissions because we’re not looking,” he said. “If you combine that with clouds — clouds can obscure a lot of our observations — there are still going to be a lot of times when we’re not actually seeing the methane emissions.”

De Gouw hopes MethaneSAT will help resolve one of the big debates about methane leaks. Between the millions of sites that release small amounts of methane all the time, and the handful of sites that exhale massive plumes infrequently, which is worse? What fraction of the total do those bigger emitters represent?

Paul Palmer, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who studies the Earth’s atmospheric composition, is hopeful that it will help pull together a more comprehensive picture of what’s driving changes in the atmosphere. Around the turn of the century, methane levels pretty much leveled off, he said. But then, around 2007, they started to grow again, and have since accelerated. Scientists have reached different conclusions about why.

“There’s lots of controversy about what the big drivers are,” Palmer told me. Some think it’s related to oil and gas production increasing. Others — and he’s in this camp — think it’s related to warming wetlands. “Anything that helps us would be great.”

MethaneSAT sits somewhere between the global mappers and point source imagers. It will take larger images than GHGSat, each one 200 kilometers wide, which means it will be able to cover more ground in a single day. Those images will also contain finer detail about leaks than GOSAT, but they won’t necessarily be able to identify exactly which facilities the smaller leaks are coming from. Also, unlike with GHGSat, MethaneSAT’s data will be freely available to the public.

EDF, which raised $88 million for the project and spent nearly a decade working on it, says that one of MethaneSAT’s main strengths will be to provide much more accurate basin-level emissions estimates. That means it will enable researchers to track the emissions of the entire Permian Basin over time, and compare it with other oil and gas fields in the U.S. and abroad. Many countries and companies are making pledges to reduce their emissions, and MethaneSAT will provide data on a relevant scale that can help track progress, Maryann Sargent, a senior project scientist at Harvard University who has been working with EDF on MethaneSAT, told me.

Courtesy of MethaneSAT

It could also help the Environmental Protection Agency understand whether its new methane regulations are working. It could help with the development of new standards for natural gas being imported into Europe. At the very least, it will help oil and gas buyers differentiate between products associated with higher or lower methane intensities. It will also enable fossil fuel companies who measure their own methane emissions to compare their performance to regional averages.

MethaneSAT won’t be able to look at every source of methane emissions around the world. The project is limited by how much data it can send back to Earth, so it has to be strategic. Sargent said they are limiting data collection to 30 targets per day, and in the near term, those will mostly be oil and gas producing regions. They aim to map emissions from 80% of global oil and gas production in the first year. The outcome could be revolutionary.

“We can look at the entire sector with high precision and track those emissions, quantify them and track them over time. That’s a first for empirical data for any sector, for any greenhouse gas, full stop,” Hamburg told reporters on Friday.

But this still won’t be enough, said Thorpe of NASA. He wants to see the next generation of instruments start to look more closely at natural sources of emissions, like wetlands. “These types of emissions are really, really important and very poorly understood,” he said. “So I think there’s a heck of a lot of potential to work towards the sectors that have been really hard to do with current technologies.”

Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

Read More

AM Briefing: Biden’s Big Energy Moves

On the EPA’s power plant rules, the White House’s transmission boost, and a new BYD pickup.

Briefing image.
Biden’s Plan to Jumpstart Offshore Wind
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Heavy rains this spring have reinvigorated the drought-stricken wetlands at Spain’s Doñana National Park • Severe thunderstorms are taking shape above the central and southern U.S. • Flooding in Kenya kills at least 32 people and displaces over 40,000.


1. EPA releases final power plant rules

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized its power plant emissions limits on Thursday, imposing the first federal standards on carbon pollution from the electricity sector since the Obama administration’s unsuccessful 2015 Clean Power Plan. “The rules require that newly built natural gas plants that are designed to help meet the grid’s daily, minimum needs, will have to slash their carbon emissions by 90% by 2032, an amount that can only be achieved with the use of carbon capture equipment,” Heatmap’s Emily Pontecorvo reports. The EPA will also severely limit carbon emissions from coal plants based on when they’re supposed to retire — a potential “death blow” to the already embattled industry, The New York Times reports — and from other new gas plants based on how much of the time they’re expected to run. Though the final rule exempts existing gas plants from the carbon capture requirements (at least for now), it could force utilities to rethink plans to rely heavily on new gas plants over the coming years as they move away from coal. The EPA expects the regulations to keep almost 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere through 2047 — assuming they survive the inevitable legal challenges.

Keep reading...Show less

The White House Has Some Transmission News Too

As if one set of energy policy announcements wasn’t enough.

Power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant rules were not the only big energy policy announcement from the Biden administration Thursday. The White House also announced a bevy of initiatives and projects meant to bolster infrastructure throughout the country.

Transmission arguably sits at the absolute center of the Biden administration’s climate policy. Without investments to move new renewable power from where it’s sunny or windy but desolate and remote to where it’s still and cloudy but densely populated, the Inflation Reduction Act is unlikely to meet its emissions reduction potential. While the most important transmission policy changes will likely come from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission next month, and possibly permitting reform legislation under consideration in Congress, the White House and Department of Energy are doing what they can with tens of billions of dollars allotted in both the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and their power over environmental regulations.

Keep reading...Show less

The New EPA Power Plant Rules Are Out — and Could Change the Calculus for Gas

Utilities in the Southeast, especially, may have to rethink.

A power plant.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Utilities all over the country have proposed to build a slew of new natural gas-fired power plants in recent months, citing an anticipated surge in electricity demand from data centers, a boom in manufacturing, and the rise of electric vehicles. But on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new emissions limits on power plants that throw many of those plans into question.

The rules require that newly built natural gas plants that are designed to help meet the grid’s daily, minimum needs, will have to slash their carbon emissions by 90% by 2032, an amount that can only be achieved with the use of carbon capture equipment. But carbon capture will be cost-prohibitive in many cases — especially in the Southeast, where much of that expected demand growth is concentrated, but which lacks the geology necessary to store captured carbon underground.

Keep reading...Show less