The more we learn about our climate, the better equipped we are to combat the factors that harm it. So in July 2022, NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) instrument was launched to map 10 key minerals in some of the world’s driest regions, and how the dust kicked up in these areas affects our climate .
However, in a brand new researchData from the instrument was used to identify more than 750 point-source greenhouse gas emissions, including methane sources from landfills, agricultural sites, and oil and gas facilities.
While detecting greenhouse gases like methane was not part of EMIT’s primary mission, the imaging spectrometer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) was found to have such a capability. “At first we were a little cautious about what we could do with this instrument,” Andrew Thorpe, the paper’s lead author, said in a statement.
“It exceeded our expectations,” he added.
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Among the 750 methane sources, EMIT was able to identify both large sources (emitting tens of thousands of pounds of methane per hour) and small sources (emitting hundreds of pounds of methane per hour). This is important because it provides accurate data on “super-emitters,” or sources of methane that produce a disproportionate share of emissions.
Methane is a particularly effective greenhouse gas – in the bad sense of the word. It is up to 80 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Thus, being able to identify its sources can ultimately help scientists develop strategies to limit harmful emissions, because these emissions are, most often, of human origin. They are also directly responsible for the climate crisis.
Typically, methane detection instruments are sent on board aircraft. At lower altitude (around several thousand feet), these instruments tend to be more sensitive to methane sources than EMITs – but such flights can only cover a limited area for a short time. These missions are also often considered too distant, too risky or too costly. Sometimes a combination of all three.
However, 250 miles (402 kilometers) above our planet on the ISS, during its first 30 days of detection, EMIT managed to observe 60 to 80 percent of the methane plumes typically seen during these aerial campaigns. . EMIT’s imaging spectrometer takes 80 km by 80 km images of the planet’s surface. Researchers call these “scenes.” Many scenes include regions well out of range of general methane-detecting aircraft.
While NASA missions often focus on observing the cosmos, EMIT proves that it’s also important to look back.
The study was published November 17 in the journal Science Advances.