NASA’s EMIT: A Surprising Ally in Tackling Climate Change

by Amir Hussein
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EMIT mission NASA

NASA’s EMIT mission, operational for over a year, has unexpectedly excelled in detecting methane and other greenhouse gases from space, a significant aspect considering methane’s release through flaring at oil and gas facilities.

Launched 16 months ago, the EMIT (Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation) imaging spectrometer aboard the ISS has proved its ability to identify more than just earth surface minerals. Over a year into its mission, EMIT has demonstrated remarkable efficiency in pinpointing precise sources of greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing the expectations of its creators.

EMIT’s Purpose and Function

Originally aimed at mapping 10 critical minerals in the world’s arid regions since its launch in July 2022, EMIT’s data on mineral observations are now aiding in understanding atmospheric dust’s impact on climate. Though methane detection was not its primary goal, the spectrometer has impressively identified over 750 emissions sources since August 2022, including small and remote sources.

A notable finding was 12 methane plumes in a 400-square-kilometer region in southern Uzbekistan on September 1, 2022, captured in a single image by EMIT.

Methane, Climate Change, and EMIT’s Impact

Andrew Thorpe from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a key member of the EMIT team, acknowledged the instrument’s unforeseen capabilities. The detection of methane sources, such as landfills and agricultural sites, is critical in combating climate change, given methane’s high heat-trapping efficiency compared to carbon dioxide.

EMIT’s ability to detect both large and small methane emissions helps identify major emission contributors, known as “super-emitters.” The instrument’s initial 30-day data showed it could observe a significant portion of methane plumes typically identified in airborne surveys.

In a remote area of southeastern Libya, EMIT detected one of the smallest methane sources on September 3, 2022, emitting about 444 kilograms of methane per hour.

Comparing EMIT to Airborne Detection

Airborne methane-detecting instruments, while more sensitive, are limited by the need for prior indications of methane presence, making them less effective in remote or risky areas. In contrast, EMIT, from its vantage point on the ISS, covers vast regions, capturing detailed 80×80 kilometer images, thus reaching areas inaccessible to airborne methods.

Robert O. Green, a senior research scientist at JPL, praised EMIT’s global methane plume measurements.

Time-Lapse Video of EMIT’s Installation

A time-lapse video illustrates the installation of EMIT on the International Space Station, showcasing the Canadarm2 robotic arm’s maneuvering of the instrument.

Detailed Scene Analysis by EMIT

EMIT’s science team regularly updates methane plume maps on a dedicated website, with the data also available at the NASA-USGS Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center. Since August 2022, EMIT has recorded over 50,000 scenes, including a significant detection of methane emissions in southern Uzbekistan and a smaller detection in Libya.

EMIT: A NASA Mission with Broad Impact

Developed under NASA’s Earth Science Division, EMIT’s data is accessible for public and scientific use, reflecting its significant contribution to understanding and addressing climate change challenges.

The detailed insights from EMIT, as outlined in a study in Science Advances, underscore its pivotal role in environmental monitoring and climate change mitigation efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about EMIT mission NASA

What is NASA’s EMIT mission?

The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) mission is a NASA initiative that was originally designed to map key minerals on Earth’s surface. However, it has shown exceptional capability in detecting methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from space.

How has the EMIT mission contributed to climate change research?

EMIT has identified over 750 emission sources of greenhouse gases since August 2022, including methane emissions from both large and small sources. This data is crucial for understanding and addressing climate change, as it helps in pinpointing major contributors to global warming.

What were the unexpected findings of the EMIT mission?

Though primarily aimed at mapping minerals, EMIT unexpectedly excelled in detecting methane emissions. This includes finding 12 methane plumes in a single image in Uzbekistan and identifying some of the smallest methane sources, like the one in Libya.

How does EMIT compare to airborne methane detection methods?

While airborne detection is more sensitive, it is limited to areas with prior indications of methane. EMIT, on the other hand, can cover vast and remote areas from its position on the International Space Station, making it more effective in identifying methane sources across the globe.

Where can the public access data from the EMIT mission?

Data from the EMIT mission is available at the NASA Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center, where the public, scientists, and organizations can access detailed maps of methane plumes and other relevant information.

More about EMIT mission NASA

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