Carbon tracking system from California-based NASA lab could expand to space

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Monday, November 15, 2021
Carbon tracking system could expand to space
New infrared technology developed in a Southern California NASA lab makes it possible to detect and track methane gases.

PASADENA, Calif. (KGO) -- If you're trying to track destructive climate pollution from the skies above California, first you need to be able to see it. And with technology developed at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, the images are the closest thing to environmental technicolor -- Plumes of escaping methane gas, captured during aerial surveys, done in partnership with the California Air Resources Board.

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"So that was called a California methane survey that we conducted with NASA aircraft back in 2016, in 2017, and that program has since expanded," says Riley Duren, a Research Scientist at the University of Arizona and an Engineering Fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

To track methane release, Duren and his colleagues at JPL employed a device called an Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer. It detects signatures in the atmosphere associated with methane, which is invisible to the naked eye, including major releases from so-called Super emitters.

"What was surprising is just how ubiquitous these emissions are, across many economic sectors. It's not limited to oil and gas. We see it with coal mines. We see it with agriculture, landfills, wastewater treatment, plants, refineries, petrochemical plants, offshore oil," Duren observes.

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Recently, state regulators pushed the envelope further, letting industries know they were launching a new aerial survey with the help of collaborators at Arizona State University, and asking them to follow up from the ground.

"And about 60% of all the plumes was something that they could, they could fix right there on the spot when they went out and found it," says Jorn Herner, Ph.D., of the California Air Resources Board.

The flights were a groundbreaking turn in the fight against greenhouse gasses, but the work of keeping them going is challenging. Now researchers have begun an equally ambitious project known as Carbon Mapper, which will expand the system into space.

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The project includes plans for a satellite launch in roughly two years. The goal is a space-based imaging system that would track Methane and Co2, similar to the way NASA-JPL uses satellites like the Sentinel-6 to track sea surface height and ocean temperatures. Riley Duren is leading Carbon Mapper as a non-profit to fund the first initial satellites.

"So the idea behind carbon mapper is to take this NASA to develop technology that was initially flown the aircraft, and to scale it up and fly on a constellation of satellites operated by the satellite company planet. And to sustain this for many years," says Duren.

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Now, Bloomberg Philanthropies has added a 25 million dollar grant to help accelerate Carbon Mapper's work. Ultimately the data it generates would be available on a new open-source platform. Helping governments like California and nations around the world tackle greenhouse gasses.

"So you really are going to need all these different methods and we really do live in a very exciting time," says Herner.

NASA/JPL, Arizona State, and the State of California are also expected to be partners in the satellite project along with other entities including the satellite company Planet.

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