Harvard Team Celebrates Launch of Methane-Detecting Satellite at SEC Event


Dozens of Harvard affiliates gathered at a Friday reception at the Science and Engineering Complex to celebrate the launch of MethaneSAT, one of the world’s most advanced methane-detecting satellites.

During the event — hosted by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability — attendees heard from Steven C. Wofsy, the principal investigator of the project, about the satellite, which launched at 5 p.m. on Monday.

Wofsy, a professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at SEAS, and a team of students and faculty from SEAS and the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have been working on MethaneSAT since 2015 with backing from the Environmental Defense Fund.

In an interview, Wofsy said the design of MethaneSAT allows scientists to study atmospheric methane emissions at a resolution higher than that of other existing satellites.


“Nobody’s ever seen data like this before. Certain people have seen satellite data, but this is very high spectral resolution,” Wofsy continued.

Although methane gas is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, Wofsy said that the majority of emissions are produced “inadvertently.”

“A lot of it is very sporadic. People don’t really understand even why it’s happening,” Wofsy said. “It’s very hard to quantify how much is being emitted, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

During the event, Wofsy said the satellite could provide valuable data for policymakers and companies as they work to fight climate change.

“There’s a chance to change the trajectory of climate warming by doing something about methane now,” Wofsy told the crowd.

Jacob B.H. Bushey, an Environmental Science and Engineering graduate student who worked on the satellite under Wofsy, said in an interview that MethaneSAT provides higher resolution details on methane emissions than previous measurement tools.

“You can think of it as missing the forest for the trees,” Bushey said. “So there’s some methods that are really good at looking at individual trees, and then some methods that get a beautiful picture of the whole forest.”

“MethaneSAT is supposed to be able to see both forests and trees,” he added.

The satellite’s primary goal is to examine oil and gas production regions. Wofsy said he hopes the satellite will reach up to 80 or 90 percent of all oil and gas production regions, measuring a substantial chunk of human-induced methane emissions.

In addition, the satellite may also look at agricultural areas and landfills, which emit methane gas in high volumes.

The data collected will be released to the public early next year, enabling companies and nonprofits to identify and fix methane leaks more efficiently.

Bushey explained that the goal behind MethaneSAT is “data transparency,” adding that the project aims to raise standards within the industry and provide policymakers with a consistent benchmark for measuring their emissions.

“It’s philanthropically funded; the data is going to be publicly available. The idea is that we’ll actually be able to see if people are reaching those goals,” Bushey said, referring to emission targets set by policymakers and industries.

Jim G. Anderson, a Harvard professor of atmospheric chemistry and Wofsy’s longtime colleague, emphasized the impact this satellite will have on efforts to reduce methane emissions.

“It’s scientifically very, very powerful, but it has huge public policy implications too,” Anderson said.

SEAS Dean David C. Parkes also attended the launch celebration reception on Friday and praised the project.

“It’s a lovely example of outward facing impact from the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences,” Parkes said. “This is the triumph of science and engineering.”

—Staff writer Xinni (Sunshine) Chen can be reached at Follow her on X @sunshine_cxn.

—Staff writer Christie E. Beckley can be reached at Follow her on X @cbeckley22.