5 mins read 29 Apr 2021

New Zealand’s First Space Mission - MethaneSAT to tackle climate change

Several prominent space industry and academic institutions have started collaborating in a new partnership on New Zealand’s flagship satellite mission, MethaneSAT – the satellite that is expected to monitor global methane emissions in the hopes of fighting climate change.

Artist illustration of MethaneSAT, which is expected to launch in 2021. Credit: The University of Auckland.

A number of key New Zealand (NZ) institutions have announced a partnership with New Zealand’s Space Agency to support the countries first dedicated government-funded and climate change fighting space mission, known as the MethaneSAT.

The announcement was made last week by Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods, who stated that the MethaneSAT project partners would be working with the New Zealand Space Agency and leading global environmental NGO the Environmental Defense Agency.

The project aims to establish the mission control centre for the satellite, which will monitor and evaluate emissions from the powerful greenhouse gas, across the next decade. Collaborating with the NZ Government on the project includes the country’s leading atmospheric and remote-sensing researchers from the Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute (which is based at the University of Auckland), as well as NZ-based aerospace company, Rocket Lab.

"This is great recognition of the capability to develop and operate space missions that we are establishing here in New Zealand,” said Te Pūnaha Ātea Director Professor Guglielmo Aglietti.

“The partnership between academia and industry is key to the growth of the New Zealand space sector, and we are delighted with this opportunity.”

“Hosting the Mission Operations Control Centre at the University of Auckland also enables educational activities and training programmes which will build important capability for the national space sector workforce,” said Prof. Aglietti.

Dr Peter Crabtree, General Manager Science, Innovation and International said: “The University of Auckland has a track record and reputation for successfully delivering important programmes like this, and I’m thrilled that they have been confirmed to be the permanent host of mission control.”

“This is an important opportunity for New Zealand to stamp our mark on global climate change science and research, and I can’t wait for the mission to launch.”

Additionally, some of the world’s leading researchers from Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are involved in the project, helping develop the satellite’s data acquisition and analytics capabilities.

As part of its role in the project, Rocket Lab will be developing, managing and operating the Mission Operations and Control Centre (MOCC), which will be located in Auckland, providing IT support and infrastructure for the satellite’s operations, tracking and collision avoidance. Once the operation of the MOCC has begun running smoothly, the centre will be transferred to the Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute to host thereafter.

Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck, says: “In the same way that Rocket Lab’s technology changed the way satellites are launched and operated, the ability to detect and measure gas leaks from space will undoubtedly change the way climate change is understood and managed. This is an internationally significant mission that can help alleviate modern society’s impact on Earth in a big way, and we’re thrilled to be able to play our part in helping to mitigate climate change through MethaneSAT.”

The MethaneSAT mission

Artist illustration of MethaneSAT sweeping its beam across the Earth. Credit: New Zealand Space Agency.

The MethaneSAT project was announced in 2019 and features a 350 kg satellite with a high precision field of view, which aims to detect global emissions of methane, down to 2 parts per billion, in unmatched accuracy with its unique ability to acquire data over a large area (200 km field of view, with the smallest pixel element size as 400m x 100m), and then analyse focused target zones.  

Whilst orbiting the Earth, MethaneSAT is expected to monitor the methane output of more than 80 per cent of global oil and gas productions, determining not only where methane discharges are occurring, but also the emission rates and rates of change over time.

Observations relayed down from the satellite will be moved through an innovative platform that runs complex analytical computations against the data, reducing the processing time from weeks down to days, providing a much faster turnaround on acting against any excessive methane discharges or leaks.

Additionally, the data will be made public for usage by global users who also wish to access the important information to address climate change mitigation strategies in their own regions, and through their own agencies.

The satellite is being developed by MethanSAT LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) who intend the data from the Earth-observing satellite to help drive a reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure operators by 2025.

Methane is classed as a powerful greenhouse gas as it traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere, playing a contributing factor in climate change across the planet. For the first 20 years, after it has been released into the atmosphere, methane is 20 times as powerful at warming as carbon dioxide.

One of the largest emitters of methane gas across the planet are from human sources, and in particular the oil and gas industry. Governments and agencies around the world are working towards the strategy of reducing methane gas emissions, working alongside decarbonisation of the economy to help mitigate the increasingly determinantal effects of climate change.

Video credit: New Zealand Minister of Business, Innovation and Employment.