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NASA mission has surpassed expectations in tracking emissions

NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) mission has surpassed expectations in its ability to identify sources of greenhouse gas emissions – particularly methane – from space. 

Originally designed to map key minerals in arid regions, EMIT’s proficiency in detecting methane emissions has become a significant aspect of its mission.

Unexpected capabilities 

The spectrometer aboard the International Space Station has identified over 750 sources of methane emissions since August 2022. These sources vary in size and location, with some being small and others located in remote areas. 

Andrew Thorpe is a research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of a study on EMIT’s capabilities.

“We were a little cautious at first about what we could do with the instrument,” said Thorpe. “It has exceeded our expectations.”

Methane detection

Methane detection is crucial in addressing climate change due to its potent greenhouse effect. This potent gas is up to 80 times more effective at trapping heat compared to carbon dioxide over a decade, although it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time. 

By pinpointing methane emission sources, which include landfills, agricultural sites, and oil and gas facilities, EMIT enables operators to mitigate these emissions effectively.


EMIT’s sensitivity to both large and small methane emissions is notable. It has detected emissions ranging from tens of thousands to just hundreds of pounds of methane per hour. 

This range allows for the identification of “super-emitters,” which contribute disproportionately to total emissions.

Airborne instruments 

The instrument’s data collection, covering large areas of the Earth’s arid regions, marks a significant improvement over traditional airborne methane detection methods. 

Airborne instruments, although more sensitive, are limited by the need for prior indications of methane presence, costs, and geographical reach. EMIT’s space-based approach allows for broader and more consistent coverage.

Extensive data

The study highlights EMIT’s ability to detect 60 to 85 percent of methane plumes typically seen in airborne campaigns within its first 30 days of greenhouse gas detection. 

The instrument captures large surface images from its position on the ISS, providing extensive data on methane emissions in regions previously unreachable by airborne methods.

Global mitigation efforts

EMIT’s findings are made available to the public, scientists, and organizations through maps of methane plumes on a dedicated website and underlying data at the NASA-United States Geological Survey Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC). 

This transparency and data sharing enhance global understanding and mitigation efforts for greenhouse gas emissions.

The detection of a cluster of emissions in southern Uzbekistan and a small emission source in southeastern Libya exemplifies EMIT’s wide-reaching capabilities. 

These findings underscore the mission’s importance in the global effort to monitor and combat climate change through advanced space technology.

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