NASA technology detects dangerous greenhouse gas methane release from space

ByTim Didion via KGO logo
Thursday, October 27, 2022
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New technology placed on the International Space Station is focusing on the release of methane, a major threat to planet Earth.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For decades, the International Space Station has expanded scientific research beyond the earth's atmosphere. But now, a technology placed on the station is zeroing in on a major threat to our planet itself, the release of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

"Blew me away, EMIT wasn't designed to look at methane, although we knew it could have some potential," says Robert Green, Ph.D., principal investigator with NASA's EMIT project.

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EMIT employs a sophisticated imaging spectrometer developed at NASA-JPL in Pasadena. The technology was launched and installed on the space station in early 2022.

By essentially measuring reflected light, it can identify the fingerprint of substances like methane in the atmosphere. But researchers were surprised when EMIT began documenting plumes from so-called super-emitters including a landfill in Iran and another site detected over oil-rich Turkmenistan.

"And the beauty at which we're able to retrieve them with the EMIT measurement, it really exceeded all my expectations," says Green.

MORE: Stanford aerial survey measures methane release into atmosphere

One reason for the excitement is that EMIT's core mission is actually to image dust and elements that might influence climate change. But over the last decade, researchers in California have helped pioneer the use of airborne spectrometers to monitor methane releases from sites ranging from utilities to landfills to wastewater treatment plants.

In 2021, ABC7 profiled the special aircraft and NASA/JPL designed equipment that were being used to identify leaks across the state. But Dr. Green says the EMIT technology is many times more sophisticated and could offer the potential of monitoring and pinpointing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

MORE: New strategies could help California meet methane goals

"And then hopefully, policymakers can say, Okay, here's, here's some methane sources. We didn't know about what's going on, are there ways we can mitigate it?," Green believes.

Potentially providing the international community with a powerful new tool to fight climate change.

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