Spectroscopic Stealth: NASA’s Super-Emitter Detector for Greenhouse Gas Surveillance

NASA’s cutting-edge greenhouse gas detector, designed and constructed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, has taken a significant step toward its launch. This state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer, crafted for the purpose of measuring methane and carbon dioxide emissions from space, has been transported to a clean room at Planet Labs PBC (Planet) in San Francisco.

The instrument is a vital component of Carbon Mapper, a nonprofit organization’s initiative to precisely pinpoint and measure methane and carbon dioxide sources from Earth’s orbit. Leveraging technologies stemming from NASA’s aerial campaigns and space missions, the Carbon Mapper imaging spectrometer is poised to provide precise data on “super-emitters,” which constitute a small percentage of sources responsible for a substantial portion of global methane and carbon dioxide emissions.

The Carbon Mapper coalition is a collaborative effort led by Carbon Mapper, partnering with institutions such as JPL, Planet, the California Air Resources Board, Rocky Mountain Institute, Arizona State University, and the University of Arizona.

The imaging spectrometer is an advanced tool capable of measuring numerous wavelengths of light reflected by Earth’s surface and absorbed by atmospheric gases. Methane and carbon dioxide, among other compounds, absorb specific wavelengths, creating distinct spectral “fingerprints” that the imaging spectrometer can recognize. These infrared signatures, invisible to the naked eye, enable precise identification and quantification of significant greenhouse gas emissions, thereby expediting potential mitigation efforts.

The spectrometer, following rigorous testing at JPL to ensure its resilience against the rigors of launch and the harsh space environment, has now been delivered to Planet for integration into a Tanager satellite. This integration process is anticipated to take several months, with the satellite’s launch scheduled for early 2024.

During its time at JPL, the spectrometer underwent critical tests, including exposure to intense vibrations simulating the conditions of a rocket launch and exposure to the extreme temperatures it will face in space’s vacuum. Additionally, a successful test involving a sample of methane within a vacuum chamber confirmed the imaging spectrometer’s capability to produce a clear spectral signature of methane.

Robert Green, the instrument scientist at JPL, expressed enthusiasm about the quality of the methane spectral signature, foreshadowing the imminent space measurements. Jeff Guido, senior director of new missions at Planet, highlighted the collaborative nature of the project, demonstrating how government, philanthropy, and industry can synergize to create impactful capabilities.

The new satellite plays a pivotal role in Carbon Mapper’s broader mission to survey the globe for point-source emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. This mission also involves NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) imaging spectrometer already in orbit aboard the International Space Station. Another imaging spectrometer, a joint endeavor between Planet and JPL, is in development. These teams will continue working in tandem to enhance greenhouse gas measurement capabilities.

Carbon Mapper, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to expediting action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by delivering precise, timely, and accessible facility-scale data. This endeavor is backed by a public-private partnership involving Planet Labs PBC, JPL, the California Air Resources Board, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and RMI, with funding from organizations such as the High Tide Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and other philanthropic donors.

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