Sometimes the importance of a technology’s secondary use far outperforms the outcomes it was first intended to achieve, and that could exactly become the case with NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) mission. While its original purpose is to detect key minerals in the planet’s dust-producing deserts, it turns out that it could become a key identifier of Earth’s worst polluters.
The science and other stuff to know
The EMIT mission was commissioned to advance scientists’ understanding of “airborne dust’s effects on climate”, a NASA press release said, but the mission has another ace up its sleeve that could prove far more crucial for the world.
“EMIT has demonstrated another crucial capability: detecting the presence of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” the press release explained. It also has the capacity of detecting carbon dioxide.
Put into service on the International Space Station earlier this year, EMIT has identified more than 50 “super-emitters” in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Southwestern United States. In other words, it is putting Earth’s worst polluters on the spot.
NASA identified super-emitters as “facilities, equipment, and other infrastructure, typically in the fossil-fuel, waste, or agriculture sectors” that emitted methane in large volumes.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is a major contributor to global warming. Ton for ton, it is 80 times more effective at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. Prolonged exposure to it causes humans to develop vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, and headaches.
The first step toward resolving a problem is often realizing it exists, and EMIT has the ability to show a mirror to many who raise concerns about climate change. By identifying hotspots and patterns of methane emission, EMIT will provide scientifically backed proof to countries about how they are contributing to global warming and climate degradation and urge them into taking stringent policy measures to contain pollution-generating activities.
“These results are exceptional, and they demonstrate the value of pairing global-scale perspective with the resolution required to identify methane point sources, down to the facility scale,” said David Thompson, EMIT’s instrument scientist and a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the mission. “It’s a unique capability that will raise the bar on efforts to attribute methane sources and mitigate emissions from human activities.”
Moving forward, EMIT will gather data on surface minerals in arid regions of Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Australia. The findings will not only help detection of key minerals but will also help researchers study how dust particles contribute to the heating and cooling of Earth’s atmosphere and surface.
And of course, it will make many countries and industries at the heart of methane pollution very uncomfortable.
“As it continues to survey the planet, EMIT will observe places in which no one thought to look for greenhouse-gas emitters before, and it will find plumes that no one expects,” said Robert Green, EMIT’s principal investigator at JPL.