New Scientific Instrument on ISS Captures Methane Emissions on Earth’s Surface

A scientific instrument installed on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) in July identified 50 methane “super emitters” in central Asia, the Middle East, and the southwestern United States.

The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) instrument can map key minerals in dust-producing regions. Minerals from dusty regions can get blown around by wind and windborne minerals could even cross oceans. EMIT measures the prevalence of dark minerals that can absorb heat and light minerals that reflect it. Data from EMIT will provide a more detailed picture of airborne dust’s role in heating or cooling Earth.

Dr. David Thompson, the Technical Group Lead of the JPL Imaging Spectroscopy Group and Instrument Scientist for NASA’s EMIT Mission, gave a presentation on EMIT’s capabilities in the below video.

Scientists found another use for EMIT while checking the accuracy of EMIT’s readings: measuring significant methane leaks from facilities and equipment used in the fossil-fuel, waste, or agriculture sectors.

“The International Space Station and NASA’s more than two dozen satellites and instruments in space have long been invaluable in determining changes to the Earth’s climate. EMIT is proving to be a critical tool in our toolbox to measure this potent greenhouse gas – and stop it at the source,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release issued by NASA.

EMIT’s imaging spectrometer can measure methane’s spectral fingerprint with high accuracy. Methane can absorb infrared light in a unique pattern. EMIT can also precisely measure carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.

EMIT is providing a field demonstration of new instruments like the Carbon Plume Mapper (CPM), which can detect plumes of methane and carbon dioxide. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is working with a nonprofit organization called Carbon Mapper to launch satellites equipped with CPM as early as late 2023.

When combined with other orbiting instruments operated by NASA and the ESA, EMIT provides a valuable tool for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. It gives the fossil fuel industry less “plausible deniability” when it comes to emissions and provides the information they need to curb leaks.

“We have been eager to see how EMIT’s mineral data will improve climate modeling,” said Kate Calvin, NASA’s chief scientist and senior climate advisor. “This additional methane-detecting capability offers a remarkable opportunity to measure and monitor greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

EMIT detected some of the biggest methane plumes on Earth, including a two-mile-long plume just southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. This region includes one of the largest oilfields in the world, which stretches from southeast New Mexico into western Texas.

Landfills can also be a major source of methane emissions as “biodegradable” waste breaks down in them. EMIT detected a three-mile-long methane “super emitter” coming from a landfill in Iran.

It detected twelve methane leaks coming from an oil and gas operation in Turkmenistan. This leak is just east of the Casper Sea port city of Hazar and winds can blow the methane west by as much as twenty miles.

These “super emitters” are not small, occasionally annoying leaks. The leaks that EMIT detected in New Mexico can spew 40,300 pounds (18,300 kilograms) of methane per hour. The Turkmenistan leaks emit a total of 111,000 pounds (50,400 kilograms) per hour. The Iran site leaks 18,700 pounds (8,500 kilograms) per hour.

By way of comparison, the twelve Turkmenistan leaks emit more methane per hour as the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak not far from Los Angeles. The Aliso Canyon leak exceeded 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms) per hour at its peak.

EMIT could end up observing hundreds of methane super-emitters as the International Space Station provides a wide, repeating coverage of the planet while orbiting Earth. Some of these super-emitters might have already been spotted by other orbiting instruments designed to detect methane in the atmosphere. (MethaneSAT is another new one.) EMIT can also work with other instruments like Sentinel-6 to look into a correlation between greenhouse gases, global warming, and ocean levels.