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Housing minister Megan Woods
Housing minister Megan Woods

ScienceNovember 6, 2019

Cheat sheet: New Zealand is launching the climate change effort into space

Housing minister Megan Woods
Housing minister Megan Woods

The government will put $26 million towards a partnership that aims to measure global methane emissions from space, and mission control will be right here in this country. 

What’s all this then?

The Environmental Defense Fund – based in the US which explains the incorrect spelling – has big plans to take the fight against climate change to space. Their MethaneSat satellite will “provide global, high-resolution coverage of methane emissions from oil and gas facilities”, and will basically give the world solid, open-access data on how much methane is being produced, and where.

How does New Zealand figure in it?

It had been trailed as “New Zealand’s first ever space mission”, and today Megan Woods announced that the NZ government would be partnering with the US operation, to the tune of $26 million, and also providing the mission control base for the satellite. “Climate change is a complex, global issue that this government is committed to addressing. We are delivering on that commitment through this Space mission,” said the minister for research, science and innovation.

What is the satellite looking for?

The major reason for the satellite to exist is to look for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. That particular greenhouse gas is considered by the EDF to be a “blind spot” in terms of emissions – as in, it’s not at all clear how much is being produced as a byproduct of fossil fuel extraction. Drastically cutting these emissions is seen as one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to bring down global emissions, particularly because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.

The NZ government is interested partly because of all the cows here, and Woods said “we will investigate the possibility of New Zealand using the data to lead an agricultural science component of the mission.”

So how is this rocket actually going to reduce emissions?

It won’t directly.

Are you telling me that these people are going to blast a rocket into space, spewing emissions as it travels, just so we can find out how large emissions volumes are? 

Well, it’s not entirely as simple as that, but basically, yes.

So what’s the point?

Cool your jets. The argument around a lot of this stuff is essentially that you have to measure emissions to reduce emissions. If you’re not seeing the full picture, then you can’t make proper decisions, and so on. “This makes it possible to assess the full measure of the problem, determine who is responsible, and press for action,” say MethaneSAT on their website. They also say that right now methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are wildly underestimated. Long term, an argument could easily be made that the emissions created in this rocket launch will allow greater emissions reductions to be made.

There must be other reasons for the government to get involved?

It’s a big boost for the local space industry generally. That’s a high value field which is growing fast, and having positive flow on effects in other areas of science and technology. Of course, that whole industry generates plenty of emissions, but in space nobody can hear you cracking eggs to make omelettes, or something.

How will it be a boost? Dr Duncan Steel, Principal Research Scientist at the Xerra Earth Observation Institute said it’s about where the crucial activities actually happen. “Whilst people imagine that space is all about satellites and rockets, in fact, the trillion-dollar space industry largely involves activities on the ground. Having satellite mission control in New Zealand is an obvious example of that.” And University of Auckland professor Richard Easther said “this is a significant step towards building a space programme that will contribute to New Zealand’s economic and scientific future.”

When will it all happen, and where in New Zealand will it launch from?

We still don’t know the details on exactly where mission control will be based, and what exactly New Zealand’s role in it all will be. But the launch is currently set down for 2022.

Keep going!