A powerful eye in the sky is helping scientists spot “super emitters” of methane, a greenhouse gas about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
That observer is NASA’s Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation instrument, or EMIT for short. EMIT has been mapping the chemical composition of dust Since the day it was installed outside in the desert regions of the world International Space Station (ISS) in July to help researchers understand how dust in the air affects the climate.
This is the main goal of EMIT’s mission. NASA officials announced Tuesday (Oct. 25) that it is making a less-than-expected contribution to climate research. The instrument identifies giant heat trapping plumes methane gas all over the world – more than 50 of them, in fact.
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“Limiting methane emissions is the key to containment Global Warming. This exciting new development will not only help researchers better determine where the methane leaks are coming from, but also provide insight into how they might be addressed – NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in the statement (opens in new tab).
“The International Space Station and NASA’s more than two dozen satellites and instruments in space have long been invaluable in detecting changes in Earth’s climate,” Nelson added. “EMIT is proving to be a critical tool in our toolbox for measuring this potential greenhouse gas – and stop at the source.”
EMIT is an imaging spectrometer designed to determine the chemical fingerprints of various minerals on Earth’s surface. The ability to detect methane is also something of a happy accident.
“It turns out that methane also has a spectral signature in the same wavelength range, which allowed us to be sensitive to methane,” said EMIT principal investigator Robert Green of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Green and other EMIT team members gave some examples of the tool’s sensitivity during a media call on Tuesday. For example, the device detected a plume of methane — also known as natural gas — at least 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) long in the sky above an Iranian landfill. According to the researchers, this newly discovered super emitter spews about 18,700 pounds (8,500 kilograms) of methane into the air every hour.
That’s a lot, but it pales in comparison to the 12 super-emitter EMIT clusters found in Turkmenistan, all of which are related to oil and gas infrastructure. Some of these plumes are as long as 20 miles (32 km), and together they add about 111,000 pounds (50,400 kg) of methane. Earth’s atmosphere per hour
This is comparable to the peak rates of the Aliso Canyon leak, one of the largest methane releases in US history. (The Aliso Canyon event, a southern California methane reservoir, was first observed in October 2015 and was not fully shut down until February 2016.)
EMIT discovered all of these super emitters very early in the instrument validation phase. It should make even bigger contributions as it becomes fully operational and scientists become more familiar with the tool’s capabilities, team members said.
“We’re really only scratching the surface of the potential of EMIT to map greenhouse gases,” Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at JPL, said during a press conference Tuesday. “We are very excited about EMIT’s potential to reduce emissions from human activities by pinpointing these emission sources.”
Mike Wall is the author of “There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter. @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or where Facebook (opens in new tab).
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