MethaneSAT’s Mission Has Begun

On the morning of March 4, 2024, one million pounds of liquid oxygen and RP-1 rocket fuel were pumped into a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket that stood on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 4 East in Santa Barbara County, California. It was an ordinary workday for the Falcon-9, which has successfully completed more than 300 launches, but in the evermore urgent battle to stem global warming, it was a mission to be remembered.   

That’s because tucked among the rocket’s payload of 53 satellites was the MethaneSAT, a small white box designed to circle the earth 15 times a day measuring changes in concentrations of methane as minute as three parts per billion. MethaneSAT is the brainchild of the Environmental Defense Fund, a subsidiary of which designed and built it in collaboration with partners that include Harvard University and key support from King Philanthropies, the Bezos Earth Fund, Arnold Ventures, the Robertson Foundation, and the TED Audacious Project. With each circumambulation of the earth, the satellite will detect emissions over vast swathes of our planet and send the data back to earth. This data will be analyzed and—with core support from King Philanthropies—publicized so it can ultimately be used to prevent leakages of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas responsible for an astonishing 30 percent of the rise in global temperatures that we are now experiencing.

Image courtesy of SpaceX

So, as huge white clouds billowed from the rocket, we here at King Philanthropies held our breath and then cheered as the Falcon-9 soared smoothly skyward and, about two hours into its journey, deployed the last satellite in its payload: the MethaneSAT. King Philanthropies’ involvement with MethaneSAT can be traced back to 2020 when we faced the fact that climate change disproportionally impacts those living in extreme poverty and started to make grants at the intersection of poverty and climate change. This prompted us to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of known solutions that would both reduce global warming and help those living in extreme poverty. One early insight related to methane.

Image courtesy of SpaceX

Methane currently accounts for about 16 percent of global emissions, but its warming effect is especially powerful in the first years after it is released; indeed, it has an 86 times greater warming impact over 20 years compared to CO2. Methane emissions will account for 50 percent of global warming in the next 10-20 years; the climate change to which it contributes will exacerbate global poverty and, according to the United Nations, potentially double the number of people needing humanitarian assistance by 2050. Given that our aim is to maximize King Philanthropies’ impact at the intersection of climate change and poverty, and to do it quickly, we soon turned to the goal of rapid methane reduction, and to the EDF, with whom we had previously partnered.

At first glance, it appeared preposterous for us to fund a satellite as a way to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those in extreme poverty. But—ever open to new ideas—our team dug deeper. As we conducted due diligence and modeled out scenarios, we realized that MethaneSAT could help prevent extreme weather events that would otherwise cause millions of people to need additional humanitarian assistance. Its potential impact on the lives of those living in poverty is massive.

Kim Starkey

Image courtesy of MethanSAT

The low-hanging fruit in the effort to reduce methane emissions is the oil and gas industry which is responsible for roughly 25 percent of all methane emissions. Research has indicated that 83 percent of these emissions can be reduced with readily available technologies—the key is to find the sources of the leaks, since methane is a clear, odorless gas. MethaneSAT will join other satellites currently orbiting the earth to detect methane but bring to the effort a special “superpower,” according to EDF Chief Scientist and MethaneSAT project leader Steven Hamburg. “MethaneSAT’s superpower is the ability to precisely measure methane levels with high resolution over wide areas, including smaller, diffuse sources that account for most emissions in many regions,” Hamburg explained. “Knowing how much methane is coming from where and how the rates are changing is essential.” By acquiring and then sharing this knowledge, EDF believes it will help the oil and gas industry to cut methane emissions in half by 2030. This reduction will prevent extreme weather events that will otherwise cause an estimated 145 million people living in poverty to need humanitarian assistance to survive.

The link between reducing the rate of global warming and making a meaningful difference in the lives of those living in poverty is manifest—and when MethaneSAT begins sending data back to earth later this year, we expect it to play a crucial role in achieving this vital mission.