Tiny satellites use AI to sniff for methane leaks on the ground (photos)

A methane leak detected by satellites of U.S. startup Orbital Sidekick.
Microsatellites of U.S. company Orbital Sidekick detect leaks of potent greenhouse gas methane with unprecedented accuracy. (Image credit: Orbital Sidekick)

California-based Earth-observation startup Orbital Sidekick has released the first images from its new constellation of planet-watching satellites that promise to take methane-leak monitoring from space to a new level with the help of AI. 

Orbital Sidekick's three satellites, launched earlier this year, are fitted with hyperspectral sensors that analyze 500 bands of light across the electromagnetic spectrum. Hyperspectral imaging offers 20 times better sensitivity compared to other systems currently in orbit, the company said in a statement. This sensitivity enables Orbital Sidekick to "chemically fingerprint" Earth's surface with a resolution of 26 feet (8 meters), revealing sources of contamination in unprecedented detail. 

Orbital Sidekick said that, among other applications, the technology will help improve detection of methane leaks from space. Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas found in Earth's atmosphere after carbon dioxide, accounting for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions (compared to carbon dioxide's 76%), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But methane has an outsized impact on Earth's climate: It's more than 25 times more potent as a warming agent than carbon dioxide is.

Related: New satellite to police carbon dioxide emitters from space

Over the past few years, several companies have begun measuring methane levels from space, with the aim of helping reduce emissions of this greenhouse gas. 

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, also known as COP26, world leaders pledged to focus on reducing methane emissions in a bid to slow down climate change. A considerable proportion of these emissions comes from oil and gas pipelines and rigs and is completely preventable. Imagery by satellites, such as those operated by Orbital Sidekick, can help companies stop those leaks early. 

Orbital Sidekick described its images as offering "higher resolution" and being "much more advanced" than those provided by older satellite systems. 

AI algorithms run by the satellites' onboard computers analyze the measurements in orbit and beam down to Earth information about hotspots with high methane concentrations, indicating potential leaks. 

"With our initial datasets, we’re able to analyze the chemical composition of each pixel and have started building out our proprietary spectral library," Orbital Sidekick said in the statement. "We’re building one of the most robust remote sensing analytics capabilities that will assist us to understand the dynamic nature of our planet on a chemical level."

In the future, Orbital Sidekick wants to expand the use of its data to help farmers with precision agriculture and to assist disaster responders and security forces. The company plans to launch three additional satellites next year.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.