A new satellite capable of detecting methane emissions in points as specific as a square kilometre or areas as wide as 200 kilometres will have its mission control based in New Zealand, Marc Daalder reports

The Government is teaming up with the Environmental Defense Fund to fund, launch, and host mission control for a satellite that will detect methane emissions, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced on Wednesday.

“This is an ambitious science partnership … that will see New Zealand at the forefront of developing and applying world-leading technology to the global challenge of managing greenhouse gas emissions,” Woods said. It’s also the first space mission undertaken by the Government.

The Government will be paying $26 million to help fund the state-of-the-art satellite, called MethaneSAT, which it sees as part of its goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The project will cost $88 million all up, with the EDF funding much of it out-of-pocket.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announces the space science partnership. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Satellite’s aim is to monitor emissions

Dr. Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist at the EDF, told Newsroom that the satellite will “be able to much more accurately, precisely measure methane emissions from both diffuse sources – larger area sources – and point sources.”

That means it could detect emissions even on individual farms or facilities.

MethaneSAT will begin by focusing on the oil and gas industry, which emits about as much methane as agriculture, but could phase to observing agricultural emissions in the future. “We will investigate the possibility of New Zealand using the data to lead an agricultural science component of the mission,” Woods said.

Around $10 million of New Zealand’s contribution will go towards this. “The bulk of the money that we’re investing in this programme is to fund New Zealand scientists to develop or potentially to take the lead in terms of agricultural emissions and atmospheric science,” said Dr Peter Crabtree, who heads up the New Zealand Space Agency.

“We think that this kind of capacity will really change our understanding of and ability to mitigate these critical greenhouse gases,” Hamburg said.

“Methane in particular is important because it accounts for one-quarter of the net radiative forcing we’re currently experiencing. It’s responsible for a big chunk of the problem and by mitigating methane, that’s the most effective thing we can do to reduce the rate of the warming in the next couple of decades.”

Mission control to jumpstart NZ space programmes

Another $10 million will fund mission control for the four to five years that the satellite is in orbit. “We will be involved in a really high quality space mission, for our own development as a space nation, for the development of people and their capability and some of the infrastructure that we’re going to need to achieve the big ambitions that we have,” Crabtree said.

Operating mission control from New Zealand for that length of time will kickstart New Zealand’s space capabilities and make it a desirable partner for future projects, he said.

MBIE’s Peter Crabtree says involvement in the project will assist New Zealand’s development as a space nation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“This mission is also what will hopefully be the first of a number of contributions New Zealand can make to major international space science projects, as a consequence of New Zealand’s growing space capability,” said Richard Easther, a professor of physics at the University of Auckland.

“Beyond the specific outcomes from the mission, engaging in this project will undoubtedly build New Zealand’s capacity to contribute, develop and lead space missions. This is a significant step towards building a space programme that will contribute to New Zealand’s economic and scientific future.”

The satellite is scheduled to launch in 2022, but won’t be launched from New Zealand.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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