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Artist's rendering of GHGSAT's new carbon dioxide sensing satellite 'Vangard'.GHGSAT Inc./Handout

The Canadian company that pioneered commercial monitoring of methane emissions from space has expanded its service to include the most abundant greenhouse gas of all: carbon dioxide.

GHGSaT Inc. announced the successful launch of three new satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Saturday.

Two of those satellites are built to measure methane leaking into the atmosphere from industrial sources, adding to the fleet of nine spacecrafts that the company has already launched for that purpose.

But the third is dedicated entirely to quantifying the carbon dioxide that is released by power plants, factories and other facilities wherever they are located.

The data it accumulates will provide customers, including governments, businesses and other organizations, the chance to access an independent and continuously updated global snapshot of a category of emissions that is widely considered to be the primary driver of human-caused climate change.

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A GHGSat C02 detector is pictured at the ABB facility in Quebec City, on March 17.MATHIEU BELANGER/The Globe and Mail

“This will be the first time that this has been done at a commercial scale from a purpose design satellite,” said Stephane Germain, the Montreal-based company’s chief executive. “It’s really pushing the envelope.”

Mr. Germain said the venture comes with a degree of technical risk because of the challenge involved in measuring carbon dioxide emissions from localized sources.

Compared to methane, which is present in atmospheric concentrations of less than two parts per million when averaged across the planet, carbon dioxide is a far more ubiquitous and evenly distributed molecule that accounts for approximately 0.04 per cent of Earth’s total atmosphere, or about 420 parts per million.

While that makes carbon dioxide easier to detect from space overall, it means that any particular source of the gas must stand out against an already significant background to be perceived by GHGSaT’s orbiting hardware.

In other words, the feat that the newly launched satellite is trying to accomplish is not unlike looking for the glow of a candle in front of a brightly illuminated wall.

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Jean-Michel Fortin, engineer at ABB, and Karl Lafontaine, technician at ABB, perform tests on a GHGSat C02 detector at the ABB facility in Quebec City on March 17.MATHIEU BELANGER/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Germain added that while the new satellite shares a basic technical design with its methane observing counterparts, it would likely be some weeks before it is ready to take its first measurements and provide the company with an initial read on its capabilities.

“We’re going to take it step by step,” he told The Globe and Mail.

If it achieves its design specifications, the satellite will be able to measure instantaneous carbon dioxide concentrations in locations smaller than 30 by 30 metres across. That is easily a detailed enough view to provide meaningful data on emissions from individual industrial sites, such as coal burning power utilities, steel mills, fertilizer plants or cement production facilities. It also offers a convenient way to compare emitters scattered around the globe by viewing them from the same platform.

Using a single satellite, GHGSaT can obtain carbon dioxide measurements from any place on Earth about every two weeks, as long as clouds don’t block its view. Mr. Germain said the company has already built a second CO2 detecting satellite and aims to add more, just as it has done to support its methane observations.

While this Saturday’s launch marks a turning point, it is not the first time that satellites have been used to detect CO2 from industrial sources.

GHGSaT initially tried combining CO2 measurements with methane detection in a single prototype satellite launched in 2016 but found that the former task is best achieved with a separate detector tuned to a different range of infrared frequencies than is used for methane.

Meanwhile, in a 2017 Canadian-U.S. study, Ray Nassar, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, and colleagues showed that NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 could quantify carbon dioxide emissions from a number of individual power plants located under that satellite’s orbital path. Similar measurements have also been made with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which is attached to the International Space Station.

While the data they provide are precise, those missions are not capable of differentiating CO2 emissions from areas that are smaller than one kilometre across. Europe’s Copernicus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Monitoring, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2026, will similarly map global emissions across a relatively wide swath.

Where GHGSaT and other potential competitors that have yet to launch see a niche is in making targeted measurements of specific sites.

“A lot of people hope that having this more detailed view of emissions … will lead to emission reductions in the most cost-efficient way possible,” Dr. Nassar said.

Chris Bataille, an associate researcher with the Canadian Energy and Emissions Data Centre at Simon Fraser University, said one advantage of GHGSaT’s technology is that it can help spot individual sources where carbon dioxide makes up 20 per cent or more of the emission. At that threshold, carbon capture technology becomes economically attractive as an approach to reducing emissions, he said.

“You can give them a tax credit to do it,” Dr. Bataille said, “And you can monitor” whether carbon capture has been deployed.

He added that satellite observations also help level the playing field for governments of developing countries that lack the resources to accurately monitor the carbon dioxide emitted by their domestic producers.

In the longer term, satellites will help determine how successful different countries and emitters are at fulfilling their claims of “abated” emissions in international climate talks.

“People drive slower when they know there are cops on the road,” Dr. Bataille said. “You may get embarrassed if satellites show you are spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when you say you’re not.”

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