NASA's greenhouse gas detector to track emissions from orbit

This advanced “greenhouse gas detector” is expected to be launched in early 2024. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
An engineer prepares the imaging spectrometer instrument for testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at JPL.
An engineer prepares the imaging spectrometer instrument for testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at JPL.

NASA/JPL-Caltech 

The US space agency has been preparing to put an advanced “greenhouse gas detector” into orbit by early 2024. 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed and built this new imaging spectrometer facility for the US-based nonprofit Carbon Mapper. 

Scientists will be able to detect the presence of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere from orbit using this newly built science instrument. 

The instrument's unique feature is its ability to determine the locations and sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The Carbon Mapper imaging spectrometer will provide targeted data on “super-emitters” – the small percentage of individual sources responsible for a significant fraction of global methane and carbon dioxide emissions,” NASA mentioned in the official release. 

Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, can capture heat and remain in the atmosphere for extended periods. The consequences of these heat-trapping gases are increasingly visible through heatwaves, floods, droughts, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and various other manifestations.

Human activities such as the use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial operations are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is essential to keep an eye on "super-emitters."

NASA's greenhouse gas detector to track emissions from orbit
The imaging spectrometer, which will measure the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, sits at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August.

Operation of the newly-built spectrometer

This spectrometer works by detecting and analyzing a wide range of light wavelengths reflected by the Earth's surface, interacting with gases in the planet's atmosphere. Various greenhouse gases absorb different wavelengths of light, generating a unique spectral signature that the imaging spectrometer can recognize and detect.

Among these, the infrared signatures, which are invisible to the human eye, can primarily quantify potent greenhouse gas emissions and their sources. 

This data set would be valuable in establishing potential mitigation actions to reduce emissions from certain sources on time.  

JPL engineers handed the finished instrument to Planet Labs PBC (Planet) in San Francisco on September 12. 

At this lab, the spectrometer will be equipped on the Tanager satellite for the final 2024 launch in the coming months. 

“This delivery is a very exciting step for us as our team can now begin the final stage in satellite integration,” said Jeff Guido, senior director of new missions at Planet, in an official release. 

The instrument has undergone various testing

It has also been subjected to different tests, such as launch vibration simulation, to prepare it for the turbulent lift-off on top of the rocket vehicle. The instrument was also tested in high space temperatures to assess its overall functioning before the launch.  

During one of the evaluations, the equipment successfully detected the presence of methane in a vacuum chamber at JPL. It generated a “clear spectral fingerprint” of methane.

“We are thrilled to see the exceptional quality of the methane spectral signature recorded. This bodes well for the space measurement soon to follow,” said Robert Green, the instrument scientist at JPL.

The new satellite is one component of a larger initiative undertaken by Carbon Mapper to systematically monitor methane and carbon dioxide emissions from specific sources worldwide. 

This comprehensive endeavor also incorporates data collected by an existing in-orbit instrument, mainly NASA's Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT), an imaging spectrometer created by JPL and positioned on the International Space Station.

The Carbon Mapper coalition is a collaborative initiative involving public and private entities spearheaded by the Carbon Mapper organization. Its partners include JPL, Planet, the California Air Resources Board, Rocky Mountain Institute, Arizona State University, and the University of Arizona.

“This milestone is an excellent example of the innovative ways that government, philanthropy, and industry can play to each other’s strengths to build exceptional capability with the potential for global impact,” added Guido. 

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