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The methane-detecting satellite Iris, built by Montreal's GHGSat Inc, is seen in a clean-room with its sensitive spectrometer covered by a protective lens cap.

Handout

A Canadian satellite has begun its long-awaited mission to search for excess industrial emissions of methane gas, a contributor to climate change.

The microwave-oven-size probe, nicknamed Iris, lifted off from its launch site near Kourou, French Guiana, at 9:51 p.m. ET on Wednesday evening. As one of 53 small satellites from 13 countries packed into a European-built Vega launch vehicle, Iris had plenty of company on its way to orbit.

The megalaunch had originally been set for March but was delayed, first by the COVID-19 lockdown and then by unfavourable weather conditions starting in June. Another launch attempt was cancelled earlier this week because a Pacific typhoon threatened a South Korean tracking station.

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But for Stéphane Germain, CEO of GHGSat Inc., the Montreal-based company behind Iris, the long months of waiting melted away in the brilliant glare of the rocket’s exhaust.

“We’re so excited to see Iris finally on her way,” said Dr. Germain, who added that he is even more eager to see the data from Iris in the next few weeks. “This has been an exercise in patience for us.”

HEADING TO SPACE, LOOKING TO EARTH

The ‘Iris’ microsatellite built by Canadian company

GHGSat is designed to detect methane gas escaping from

industrial sites around the world. It was launched

together with 52 other small satellites.

Arianespace Vega launch vehicle

GHGSat-C1 ‘Iris’

microsatellite

Payload for Flight VV16

(756kg) 53 small

satellites

UHF

antennas

Optical

downlink

Radiator

Auxiliary

camera

Imaging

spectrometer

Solar panels

Fourth stage

Iris facts

Weight: 16kg

Size: 20cm x 30cm x 40cm

30m

Spatial resolution: <25m

Field of view: 12km x 12km

Third stage

Kourou Vega

launch site

Second stage

Cayenne

French Guiana

First stage

SURINAME

DETAIL

BRAZIL

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND

MAIL SOURCE: ghgsat; european space agency;

nasa; graphic news

HEADING TO SPACE, LOOKING TO EARTH

The ‘Iris’ microsatellite built by Canadian company GHGSat

is designed to detect methane gas escaping from industrial

sites around the world. It was launched together with 52

other small satellites.

Arianespace Vega launch vehicle

GHGSat-C1 ‘Iris’

microsatellite

Payload for Flight VV16

(756kg) 53 small

satellites

UHF

antennas

Optical

downlink

Radiator

Auxiliary

camera

Imaging

spectrometer

Solar panels

Fourth stage

Can launch

multiple

satellites into

different orbits

Iris facts

Weight: 16kg

Size: 20cm x 30cm x 40cm

30m

Spatial resolution: <25m

Field of view: 12km x 12km

Third stage

10 tonnes of fuel,

burns for 117 secs

Atlantic Ocean

Kourou Vega

launch site

Second stage

24 tonnes

of fuel,

burns for

72 secs

Cayenne

French Guiana

First stage

88 tonnes

of fuel,

burns for

107 secs

SURINAME

DETAIL

BRAZIL

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: ghgsat; european space agency;

nasa; graphic news

HEADING TO SPACE, LOOKING TO EARTH

The ‘Iris’ microsatellite built by Canadian company GHGSat is designed to detect

methane gas escaping from industrial sites around the world. It was launched

together with 52 other small satellites.

Arianespace Vega launch vehicle

GHGSat-C1 ‘Iris’

microsatellite

Payload for Flight VV16

(756kg) 53 small

satellites

UHF

antennas

Optical

downlink

Radiator

Auxiliary

camera

Imaging

spectrometer

Solar panels

Fourth stage

Can launch

multiple

satellites into

different orbits

Iris facts

Weight: 16kg

Size: 20cm x 30cm x 40cm

30m

Spatial resolution: <25m

Field of view: 12km x 12km

Third stage

10 tonnes of fuel,

burns for 117 secs

Atlantic Ocean

Kourou Vega

launch site

Second stage

24 tonnes

of fuel,

burns for

72 secs

Cayenne

French Guiana

First stage

88 tonnes

of fuel,

burns for

107 secs

SURINAME

DETAIL

BRAZIL

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: ghgsat; european space agency; nasa; graphic news

Dr. Germain and his team watched the launch online over a Zoom call and received their first communication from the satellite when it passed over a ground station about two hours later. The successful deployment is a milestone for the Canadian aerospace firm, which is seeking to become the world’s eyes in the sky for monitoring greenhouse gases from space.

GHGSat was founded in 2010, just as governments were stepping up efforts to regulate emissions, and Dr. Germain, who is an aerospace engineer, saw a commercial opportunity in providing reliable accounting from space.

The company launched its first satellite, Claire, in 2016. The proof-of concept mission was designed to measure both methane and carbon dioxide using a sensitive detector known as a Fabry-Perot spectrometer, which can identify the gases based on their absorption of specific wavelengths of light. The company’s key innovation was to create a version of the device that can be flown reliably and economically on a small satellite.

“The secret sauce is in the spectrometer,” Dr. Germain said. “It’s really good at sifting out everything but those few, narrow wavelengths.”

Claire made news in January, 2019, when it spotted an enormous and previously undetected plume of methane venting from a gas field in Turkmenistan. The leak was eventually shut down after the discovery was documented. Dr. Germain said the impact on global carbon emissions was the equivalent of removing one million cars from the road.

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GAS SPOTTING

​A spectroscope image shows methane gas

escaping from an oil and gas facility in the

southwestern U.S. The image was taken by

Claire, a demonstration satellite built in Canada

by GHGSat and launched in 2016. With its latest

satellite, Iris, the company aims to improve on

this performance and provide customers with

accurate monitoring of methane emissions from

space.

Parts per billion*

610

550

490

430

370

0

125

310

METRES

PERMIAN BASIN

*CH4 column averaged

concentration in excess

of background level.

0

2

KILOMETRES

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE

AND MAILSOURCE: GHGSAT

GAS SPOTTING

​A spectroscope image shows methane gas escaping

from an oil and gas facility in the southwestern U.S. The

image was taken by Claire, a demonstration satellite built

in Canada by GHGSat and launched in 2016. With its

latest satellite, Iris, the company aims to improve on this

performance and provide customers with accurate moni-

toring of methane emissions from space.

Parts per billion*

610

550

490

430

370

0

125

310

METRES

PERMIAN BASIN

*CH4 column averaged

concentration in excess

of background level.

0

2

KILOMETRES

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: GHGSAT

GAS SPOTTING

​A spectroscope image shows methane gas escaping from an oil and gas facility in the

southwestern U.S. The image was taken by Claire, a demonstration satellite built in Canada

by GHGSat and launched in 2016. With its latest satellite, Iris, the company aims to improve

on this performance and provide customers with accurate monitoring of methane emis-

sions from space.

Parts per billion*

610

550

490

430

370

0

125

310

METRES

PERMIAN BASIN

*CH4 column averaged

concentration in excess

of background level.

0

2

KILOMETRES

IVAN SEMENIUK AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GHGSAT

However, the real challenge for the company is showing that its technology can be applied to smaller sources, which make up the bulk of industrial emissions.

Iris, which will focus exclusively on methane detection, is expected to provide a tenfold improvement in performance over Claire. That includes seeing differences in methane emission in areas as small as 25 metres across. The company is betting that this will put it within the reach of becoming a viable commercial service that can deliver data on a large range of industrial sites, including oil and gas facilities, mines and landfills.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, though not as large a contributor to global warming as carbon dioxide because there is less of it in the atmosphere. However, global measurements suggest that there is up to twice as much methane as there should be, based on known industrial sources. This suggests that large quantities of methane may be escaping from leaks or other unmonitored sources and that identifying those leaks would be a relatively and easy way to curb emissions, particularly in the oil and gas sector.

“In theory it’s more controllable [than carbon dioxide], because it’s in pipes and we should be able to keep it there,” said Daniel Zimmerle, director of Colorado State University’s Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center in Fort Collins.

Mr. Zimmerle said that companies are facing growing pressure to get a handle on their emissions as part of their social licence to operate. Customers who purchase natural gas on the international market are also looking for assurances that their suppliers abroad are conforming to responsible greenhouse gas policies.

What satellites offer is “the ability to look everywhere,” Mr. Zimmerle said. However, the detection threshold for space-based measurements of methane limits what satellites can see, and the approach has yet to prove itself as an alternative to ground or aircraft surveillance. Where a satellite comes out ahead is in providing data on locations that are not accessible by other means or at times when no one else is looking.

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Mr. Zimmerle said that satellites like Iris could play a complementary role in a multitiered global methane-observation strategy.

Chris Hugenholtz, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in methane detection, said that when it comes to satellite-based measurements, “the scientific community is still trying to disentangle the hype from the performance.” He added that he and his colleagues are excited to see a Canadian company at the forefront of the field and they are curious to see what the newly launched satellite can do.

The answer may not be long in coming. Dr. Germain said he has a full slate of customers waiting for data and a long list of sites for Iris to look at. Meanwhile, the company’s third satellite just completed vibration tests this week. Dubbed Hugo, the satellite is essentially a twin of Iris that will double the company’s coverage and data rate. It is scheduled to fly in December.

Wednesday’s launch also delivered two Canadian microsatellites into orbit. One is ESAIL, a device built and operated by exactEarth of Cambridge, Ont., to track marine shipping traffic. The other is TARS, a demonstration satellite for communications technology developed by Kepler Communications Inc. of Toronto.

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