Road to Launch: The Carbon Mapper Coalition achieves key satellite milestones

Published on: Sep 14, 2023

This week, the instrument that will go on the Tanager-1 satellite was transferred from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to Planet Labs PBC (Planet)! This marks an exciting milestone in the development of the first of two satellites being developed and deployed through a first-of-its-kind public-private Coalition led by Carbon Mapper, a nonprofit with the mission to provide actionable and accessible methane and CO2 data to decision makers

An imaging spectrometer stands waiting to be transferred in the NASA JPL lab. It has a white thermal cover over it. It's arrival is noted in the text around it.

An imaging spectrometer, which will measure the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, sits integrated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August, before shipment to the Bay Area. The instrument will be integrated into the Tanager-1 satellite over the next several months. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Delivering this exquisite instrument is a key milestone as the Carbon Mapper Coalition satellites get ready for launch,” said Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO. “For years through airborne campaigns Carbon Mapper researchers have been demonstrating how delivery of actionable data to facility operators and regulators can translate to rapid leak repairs. These satellites will help scale-up and accelerate methane action globally and contribute to the growing ecosystem of advanced monitoring and climate mitigation programs.”

Detecting methane from space

An engineer prepares the imaging spectrometer instrument for testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at JPL. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2021, Carbon Mapper and partners from NASA JPL, Planet, the California Air Resources Board, RMI, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and philanthropic partners including the High Tide Foundation, Grantham Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, among others announced plans to develop and deploy two satellites with capabilities to detect, pinpoint, and quantify high emission methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) point sources at the scale of individual facilities.

This involved assembling a unique Coalition which has brought together entities with technical, scientific, engineering, and policy expertise to accomplish bold objectives far bigger than any one company or organization could tackle on their own at the scale that’s needed to drive emissions reductions. These two satellites are designed to help fill gaps in our current understanding of methane and CO2 emissions, and are the first step toward a larger goal to build a full constellation.

NASA JPL scientists and workers observe the instrument in the lab.

Engineers prepare the imaging spectrometer instrument for vibration testing at JPL. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The instrument, designed and built by NASA JPL, is an imaging spectrometer that measures the hundreds of wavelengths of light reflected by Earth’s surface and absorbed by gasses in the planet’s atmosphere.

Different compounds — including greenhouse gasses like methane and CO2 — absorb different wavelengths of light, leaving a kind of spectral fingerprint not visible to the human eye. When analyzed, these light signatures can reveal which substances produced the fingerprint. The imaging spectrometer is the “eye” of the satellite and allows us to gather high quality data required to detect, pinpoint, and quantify point source emissions of methane and CO2.

 

 

A very special delivery

The instrument left JPL’s facility in Pasadena, CA, bound for the Bay Area in a truck on September 12th in preparation for the next phase on its journey to space.

“This delivery is a very exciting step for us as our team can now begin the final stage in satellite integration,” said Jeff Guido, Senior Director of New Missions at Planet. “This milestone is an excellent example of the innovative ways that government, philanthropy, and industry can play to each other’s strengths to build an exceptional capability that has the potential for global impact.”

The instrument in its crate upon arrival to the Bay Area. Image Credit: Planet Labs PBC.

Rigorous testing and first methane detection

This major milestone is not the first. Leading up to delivery, the imaging spectrometer recently passed a rigorous set of tests at JPL’s facility to ensure that the instrument can withstand the stresses of launch and harsh conditions in orbit. Engineers subjected the spectrometer to intense vibrations similar to what it will endure aboard a rocket blasting into orbit, as well as the extreme temperatures and vacuum of space. 

A technician slides the imaging spectrometer, which will measure methane and carbon dioxide from Earth orbit, into a thermal vacuum test chamber at JPL in July. Engineers use the chamber to subject the spectrometer to the extreme temperatures it will encounter in the vacuum of space. Video Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During laboratory calibration of the instrument, a rare opportunity presented itself to test a sample of methane in front of the spectrometer. This special test was a complete success, with the instrument producing a clear spectral fingerprint of methane. “We are thrilled to see the exceptional quality of the methane spectral signature recorded — this bodes well for the space measurement soon to follow,” said Robert Green, the JPL instrument scientist.

This spectral “fingerprint” of methane was produced from data taken during a test of the imaging spectrometer at JPL. The state-of-the-art instrument measures hundreds of wavelengths of light reflected by Earth’s surface and absorbed by gasses in the atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s next on our road to launch

The second instrument is currently being built by Planet in close collaboration with NASA JPL. This partnership is at the heart of our unique Coalition which helped to transfer the instrument’s technology from NASA JPL to Planet, and allow for the potential to develop a full satellite constellation. The two teams will continue working side-by-side as Planet leads on building the second satellite and instrument. 

While these milestones are an exciting step on our journey to develop and deploy the first two Carbon Mapper Coalition satellites, we now turn efforts toward integrating the instrument with the satellite bus this fall and preparing for launch, targeting early 2024. 

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Definitions

Spectroscopy is broadly defined as the study of how electromagnetic energy interacts with matter. There are many different methods that use the principles of spectroscopy to detect, identify, and quantify data about matter including gasses, liquids, and solids.

Spectrometers are instruments that measure this interaction between these different materials and energy.