NASA instrument detects dozens of methane super-emitters from space

LOS ANGELES, Oct 25 (Reuters) – A NASA orbiting instrument designed primarily to advance studies of airborne dust and its effects on climate change has proven adept at another key science function Earth – the detection of significant global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The device, called an imaging spectrometer, has identified more than 50 methane ‘super-emitters’ in Central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States since it was installed in July aboard the International Space Station , NASA announced on Tuesday.

Newly measured methane hotspots – some already known and others recently discovered – include vast oil and gas facilities and large landfills.

The spectrometer was built primarily to identify the mineral composition of dust blown into the atmosphere from Earth’s deserts and other arid regions by measuring the wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of the ground in these areas. .

This study, NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Investigation, or EMIT, will help scientists determine whether airborne dust in different parts of the world is likely to trap or deflect heat from the sun, contributing to the global warming or cooling.

Methane turns out to absorb infrared light in a unique pattern that EMIT’s spectrometer can easily detect, according to scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, where the instrument was designed and built.

Circling the Earth once every 90 minutes from its perch aboard the space station at an altitude of approximately 420 km, EMIT is able to scan large swathes of the planet for tens of kilometers while focusing on areas as small as a football field.

“Some of the plumes (of methane) detected by EMIT are among the largest ever observed – unlike anything ever observed from space,” said Andrew Thorpe, a JPL research technologist who leads the studies on methane.

A by-product of the breakdown of organic matter and the main component of natural gas used in power plants, methane accounts for a fraction of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, but its heat-trapping ability is about 80 pounds per pound more than carbon dioxide.

Compared to CO2, which lingers in the atmosphere for centuries, methane only persists for about a decade, meaning reductions in methane emissions have a more immediate impact on global warming.

Examples of newly imaged methane super-emitters shown by JPL on Tuesday included a cluster of 12 oil and gas infrastructure plumes in Turkmenistan, with some plumes extending more than 20 miles (32 km).

Scientists estimate that plumes from Turkmenistan collectively spew methane at a rate of 111,000 pounds (50,400 kilograms) per hour, rivaling the peak flow rate of the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas field explosion near Los Angeles , which ranks as one of the largest accidental releases of methane in US history.

Two other large emitters were an oil field in New Mexico and a waste processing complex in Iran, emitting nearly 60,000 pounds (29,000 kg) of methane per hour combined. JPL officials said neither was previously known to scientists.

EMIT, one of 25 Earth science instruments in orbit, could potentially find hundreds of methane super-emitters before the end of its year-long mission, NASA said.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles

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