A Tiny Canadian Satellite Is Going to Watch the World's Climate Offenders

Its creators say that four major operators from Canada's oil sands have already signed-up.

Nov 25 2015, 2:45pm

How a satellite is made. Image: GHGSat

A tiny Canadian satellite designed to monitor the greenhouse gas emissions of any facility in the world is ready to launch.

On Wednesday, a Montreal company called GHGSat announced that its nanosatellite, nicknamed CLAIRE, has passed its final tests, and will launch on an Indian Polar launch vehicle in April 2016.

The satellite, which has been in development for two years, is being pitched as a relatively inexpensive way for oil and gas companies and other energy producers to measure exactly how much carbon dioxide and methane they put into the atmosphere each year. The two gases are chief drivers of climate change.

"Given the way the orbital dynamics work, it will take about two weeks for CLAIRE to see any point on the Earth, and then return to see that same point on the Earth. What that means is, we can measure any point on the surface of the Earth, every two weeks, with a single satellite," said GHGSat president Stéphane Germain in an interview for Vice Du Jour with Brigitte Noël earlier this week

The announcement coincides with a fundraising campaign that GHGSat has launched for CLAIRE. While the satellite's design, development and testing have already been funded, money raised from the Kickstarter drive will go towards demonstrations of CLAIRE's abilities "in places where customers need to be convinced of our technology's benefits," according to the team.

Only a limited number of demonstrations are possible with GHGSat's current funding.

Germain told Vice Du Jour that CLAIRE won't just be useful for regulators; there is also an incentive for industrial producers worried about their creation of greenhouse gases.

"If we can give them better data to manage their emissions, then they can control them better, and they can ultimately reduce them," he explained. "And if they're subject to a cap and trade cost, or a carbon tax, or if they think they can gain some carbon credits—all three of those are worth money to them—then having better data to manage, control, and ultimately reduce their emissions turns into money for them."

CLAIRE undergoing one of its many tests. Image: GHGsat

GHGSat says that four major operators from Canada's oil sands have already signed-up for demonstrations, but it wants to secure more.

The company was founded in 2011, after years of work with the Canadian Space Agency developing a sensor that could detect carbon dioxide and methane gas from orbit. According to the team, the underlying science behind these measurements is proven and has been in use for decades, but the sensing technology—now small enough to fit on a satellite roughly the size of four two-litre Coke bottles taped together (but a little bit longer)—is new.

Gases have a unique fingerprint, because of they way they absorb light, and this fingerprint is observable from space. By measuring the brightness of those fingerprints using sunlight, CLAIRE can determine how much gas is present. GHGSat's sensor will measure carbon dioxide and methane, in areas of 12 square km, at a resolution of up to 50m.

The team is now working to raise money for additional funded demonstrations, where sites selected by backers will have their emissions measured. They suggest a number of possible areas of observation, including oil and gas fracking sites coal burning plants, gas flaring sites, and volcanic eruptions—all of which add large volumes of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere each year.

Each demonstration funded by their Kickstarter campaign will measure carbon dioxide and methane at a site for the span of the year, and anywhere between 13 and 26 measurements will be made.

"$100k will pay for one demonstration, and for each additional $50k raised, we will perform another demonstration, until we reach $1M in funds raised," according to the team's Kickstarter page—up to 20 demonstrations.

"If we can provide, and we think we can, a satellite measurement that will be a lot cheaper, a lot easier to measure, and more precise, then it's a win-win," Germain said. "And ultimately, [companies] can work better with the regulator to learn how to control those emissions and ultimately reduce them."

With files from Brigitte Noël.