Commercial satellite will see super CO2 emitters

Art satellites

Artwork: GHGSat flies high-resolution methane sensors into orbit

The world’s first commercial satellite dedicated to monitoring carbon dioxide from orbit will be launched later this year.

It will be set up by Canadian company GHGSat, which already flies six spacecraft that track methane emissions.

The new platform will use the same shortwave infrared sensor but be tuned to the specific light signature of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The satellite will have a ground-level resolution of 25 m, which means it will be able to see the main individual sources.

“We expect to see things like refineries, steel mills, aluminum smelters, cement plants and, of course, thermal power plants,” GHGSat CEO Stephane Germain told BBC News.

There are already a number of national space agency missions monitoring CO2. NASA, for example, flies its carbon-orbiting observatories; Japan operates its own GoSat mission; and China has TanSat.

But while these can map large areas of carbon dioxide changes in the atmosphere, they can’t refine super-emitters to the scale of a single industrial complex.

CO2 map

Higher concentrations (in red) of CO2 in the atmosphere are already being mapped by satellite at large scales

To monitor CO2, the GHGSat sensor will need to work at a higher detection threshold than methane.

CH4 is a much smaller component than air – about 1.9 molecules in every million, versus 418 for carbon dioxide – making it much easier to see a methane spike above the normal background.

GHGSat-C10, as the new satellite will be called, will target a detection threshold of one megaton per year.

‘It’s not as if we have to find the big CO2 emitters; we already know where they are,’ said Dr. Germain. “Unlike methane, which is fugitive – it shows up in places and times you don’t necessarily expect – we know where the big power plants are in the world; we know where the aluminum smelters are. So, it’s more about being able to check the emissions”.

GHGSat plans to sell its data to governments and financial services markets. The information will be used to verify the emission estimates.

Modern plants will probably have implemented continuous emissions monitoring systems, perhaps in the flue stacks. But even these operations may require the occasional independent observation.

And under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries must compile CO2 inventories. GHGSat data could help with international comparisons.

“We’ll see how we go along, but we have aspirations of launching several more carbon dioxide satellites,” said Dr. Germain.

“Ultimately, we would like to get at least monthly coverage of all major CO2 sources in the world and potentially weekly coverage of every source in the world as well.”

Methane levels

GHGSat has built its business on monitoring methane at the level of a single industrial plant

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