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Satellites improve life – An interview for the World Space Week 2020 with the New Zealand Space Agency

Satellites improve life – An interview for the World Space Week 2020 with the New Zealand Space Agency

In 2020, we took the opportunity to learn more about New Zealand’s plans on using satellites to improve life.

In this interview, Dr Peter Crabtree, Head of the NZ Space Agency, Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, Lead Researcher for the mission and Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist, EDF,​ talk with Haritina Mogosanu, Senior Science Communicator for WSWA and Country Coordinator for New Zealand about MethaneSAT, during World Space Week 2020.

Interview transcript:

The World Space Week Association is the global coordinator for the World Space Week under the guidance of the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space COPUOUS and the United Nations’ office for Outer Space Affairs.

Every year, the World Space Week Association Board chooses a theme.

This year, the theme is “Satellites Improve Life”.

New Zealand has joined its first official space mission as a country to combat climate change.

It’s called MethaneSAT, and the mission’s Control Centre will be located here in New Zealand.

I’m here with Dr Peter Crabtree, the head of the New Zealand Space Agency and Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, Lead Researcher for the mission.

Kia Ora Peter and Sara, it is a real pleasure to have you here.

Kia Ora

Peter, what is MethaneSAT?

MethaneSAT is a mission with the objective of sensing atmospheric methane concentrations. And so with the idea that we gain better information,

about those concentrations, and that will enable people to make better decisions and to understand the phenomenon much better.

Why has New Zealand chosen a partnership with the Environmental Defence Fund in the US for our first official space mission? 

Thank you, that’s a good question. There are two answers to that on the one hand we were thinking, prior to this, about doing something in the climate science area and that being a really good objective for New Zealand given our interest as a nation from a policy perspective and so on, and then, on the other hand, there was an opportunity that came towards us to participate and be a partner in a really cutting edge space mission that also was going to happen with what we thought was a reasonable time frame given the pace that we were moving at, which was quite quick. So the idea of working with an organisation that was going to be quite nimble in putting together a space mission when sometimes some space missions can be put together over very long period of time, and we saw this as an opportunity for New Zealand to step into something that was really quite a serious endeavour but something that could really assist us as a nation in quite a number of different ways.

Let’s cross over to Steven Hamburg from EDF, Steven could you please tell us a little bit more 

Hello Hari, Peter and Sara it’s great to be with you and it’s great to have an opportunity to talk about MethaneSAT a mission that I’m passionate about.

The idea of MethaneSAT started a few years ago in conversation between Steve Wofsy, a professor at Harvard University and myself about the need to be able to collect methane flux data, how much methane was being emitted from around the world, and we didn’t have that capacity and without that knowledge we really couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to reduce methane emissions because we did not know where it was occurring.

So we determined what we would need from a satellite and then went to the technology experts and asked, could we push the envelope on the technology to build the capacity inflight in space. And while we were pushing the envelope, that technology has evolved and is now possible, and MethaneSAT is the product of that integration of new technology, innovative science and the inversion technology that Steve has pioneered, into a program that allows us to do the advocacy to bring that data to the rest of the world.

And EDF, the Environmental Defence Fund, is well situated to lead this effort. EDF was founded by a group of scientists who understood a problem but did not have the tools to implement the understanding into policy that resulted from that knowledge. And that initial problem was the impacts of DDT on birds of prey in eastern United States. So they got together and formed the Environmental Defence Fund, hired a lawyer and then, using their science, went to look at and implement the needed ban on DDT, which was implemented in the early 1970s.

So with methane emissions from oil and gas industry, we understand the impact it’s having on the climate but we didn’t have the tools to bring that data and understanding to the many oil and gas producing regions of the world so that we could reduce those emissions and greatly slow the rate of warming.

MethaneSAT is very different than many other missions in that as I mentioned we started with the problem, and then went to look at the solutions. Could the technologies provide the data necessary to address that problem? We build an amazing team led by Tom Ingersoll who comes out of the commercial space community, of people who are really committed to ensuring that you we can use space technology to help society address one of the biggest crisis we ever faced which is climate change. And so by getting the best of the space technology community together with the best of the scientific community, in partnership with New Zealand, which has been an incredible opportunity to really push this mission forward fast and implement it effectively. We are very much looking forward to the operation centre being in New Zealand and to getting the satellite launched and the data flowing so that we can start to figure out where those methane emissions are coming from and ensure that people understand how those emissions can be mitigated and in turn getting that job done.

New Zealand is a wonderful partner in that there is a real commitment to bringing good science to bear on the needs of society writ large and that is the mission of EDF and so we are really very pleased to have the partnership with the New Zealand Government and the science community.

We are partnering with New Zealand because it’s a real natural fit. The focus of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment on the use of science to help improve New Zealand society and the well-being of your citizens fits wonderfully into the objectives of this mission and to the DNA of EDF as an organisation for these fifty plus years. So by taking advantage of the scientific knowledge that already exists in New Zealand and to help develop the nascent space capacity in the country we were able to accelerate progress on the mission while developing the skill sets in New Zealand. It’s a partnership that we very much value, and are confident will persist and enhance the work we are doing together over the coming years.

Thank you Steven. I have a couple of questions for Sara

What is novel about the satellite mission?

So many things.

It’s an amazing mission! I mean for me, on the technical side, there are two big things. One is that it’s first time we’re going to have a satellite flying in the sky that’s going to be able to measure methane with the kind of precision we would expect to have of someone on my team tried to measure it with an instrument on the ground. That’s extraordinary!  The other thing is the spatial resolution so this thing is going to capture a 200 x 200 km scene and within that scene is going to do a raster scan with very high precision so we will be able to pick up exactly where these emissions are happening; but then on the policy side, it’s the first satellite that’s been purposely designed to support and enable climate action.

So there are two big things happening there, one is that they are going to have inverse modelling as part of the whole framework, which is the modelling tool you used to go from what the satellite measures, which is the concentration, to what you need for policy action which is to know the emissions. So that’s going to be happening live throughout the satellite’s mission, and then in addition to that is the impact in communicating as quickly so that we can empower people to be able to reduce these emissions.

Tell me Sara what relevant expertise do we have here in New Zealand to contribute to MethaneSAT science?

Well we have quite a big going on in New Zealand. New Zealand has been a leader in greenhouse gas measurements, since before I was born. In fact, when I was a PhD student coming up at NOAA, which is kind of our opposite number in the US, NIWA was already famous to me for having the best methane isotopes almost anywhere in the world. And so we have this amazing rich history of these atmospheric measurements both on the ground and also in the total air column. So you can imagine that you have a satellite it’s flying around looking down trying to measure things. To make sure that you get that satellite measurement right it’s really helpful to have an instrument on the ground that looks up. It’s a similar type of instrument but it’s on the ground so there are all kinds of extra things you can do so work out what you’re seeing when you have something that’s ground based.

So New Zealand has one of the two initial ground based instruments like this, they are called TICON instruments. They support all types of satellite activities and they will be supporting MethaneSat as well. And then the third big thing is the modelling. We have already a well-developed modelling framework that’s operating at a very high resolution where we’ll be able to be right in there with that modelling to be able to turn those concentrations that we’re seeing in the satellite into the emissions we need to take policy action.

The next question is for Peter. What will New Zealand get out of being part of this mission?

Quite a lot! There is a number of elements. One element is that the mission control for this programme is going to be based in New Zealand so we get to participate in the programme from an engineering perspective, setting up the mission control functions and all the protocols around the mission control itself. So that’s from a space capability perspective that’s a really good opportunity for us to step into the idea of hosting a world class space mission.

So very much for the space systems people, very excited about it from that perspective. Then on the other side of things is the science. It’s really around the fact that we get to stand alongside some international partners like Harvard University and the Smithsonian and work with them on the science programme. New Zealand is going to lead the agricultural emissions side of that, and with the United States in particular focused on oil and gas emissions, with methane emissions as well. We love the idea of international science partnerships that are operating at that level, they really help us get more impact out of our science programs. So those are two elements and really the third bit is from a policy perspective is New Zealand being able to make better informed decisions when we come to think around our own climate policy and so on.

Sara what are your plans for working with the Harvard team working on oil and gas industry methane?

Another thing about MethaneSAT that we haven’t talked about is that it was purpose designed to be able to tackle anthropogenic emissions mostly from oil and gas. That’s because these are really the low hanging fruit of climate action. If you tell people where a leak is, because this is usually an accidental leak, then you have a really good chance that those people are going to be excited to go and fix that leak and reduce our methane. But there is tremendous opportunity to be able to use the same data that are designed to be able to detect these oil and gas leaks for agricultural problems.

So we also have agricultural emissions of methane from sheep, cows, rice patties, those types of things, and the aim of the New Zealand-based science project is to develop the capability to use these data to detect those agricultural emissions not only giving New Zealand some of the best information anywhere in the world about our agricultural emissions but also helping to design a framework for how the international team can pick other places they might want to look at and target to support climate action there.

Peter the theme of world space week this year is “satellites improve life” what other satellite activities is the New Zealand space agency involved in?

New Zealand is a pretty young space actor.  We have a space sector now which is about $1.7 billion worth of activity but we are still quite young. In terms of satellite development, a lot of our effort is going largely into educational institutions probably smaller scale satellite programmes, cubesat opportunities. Which start to, on the one hand demonstrate what you can do with small satellites, as a capability, and the things you can do with small satellites every day, like miniaturisation across all technology is that is ever expanding. We are also really interested from a government perspective as what are the government’s needs that can be better addressed through satellites.

So really, at the moment, we are spending a lot of time across government working with lots of agencies that have an interest and have had for a long time often used Earth observation, but is really about the New Zealand government being a super user of satellites. I think over time that will lead us to getting clearer about which area we want to invest in in particular when it comes to the satellite capabilities. We are on a journey at the moment.

And would you like to see New Zealand making greater use of satellite data?

Absolutely! It’s quite a challenge for a lot of people who have not been exposed to the possibilities of this and there are a lot of things we do that at the moment, we might be on Earth and might measure in certain ways and it’s often quite labour-intensive and resource-intensive but also the issue around frontier technologies like this is that they push the boundaries of what might be possible.

So what if, from space, you could, every day you could track, or every week, we could track if we were winning the battle against possums in our conservationist state? Suddenly on your desktop you would have AI, robots essentially, being able to tell you that those species are thriving or not thriving.  And so we are interested, we are seeing those kinds of possibilities all over the place and it’s a question of getting the customer or the potential users to understand that is a real possibility, and on the other hand that we fast track our technology development so that we can actually give people these types of solutions, is really really exciting times.

This is what World Space Week is all about, bringing space technology here to people on Earth, so we are on a very good path.

Thank you very much Peter and Sara for your time and for coming here and Happy World Space Week!



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