Blue Canyon Technologies to build its largest satellite to date for MethaneSAT

Space

WASHINGTON — MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, has selected Blue Canyon Technologies to supply the platform for its donor-funded satellite. 

MethaneSAT said Jan. 6 it will use X-SAT, Blue Canyon’s largest offered spacecraft bus, to carry a methane-detection payload from Ball Aerospace. The nonprofit hopes to launch the 350-kilogram satellite in mid-2022, though a launch provider has not yet been selected. 

Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project co-lead, described the MethaneSAT satellite as a “sensorcraft,” because of the complexity of the sensor. Payload provider Ball Aerospace, not Blue Canyon, will be integrating the payload, he said. 

“In this case it’s flipped — the payload provider is the integration contractor, because the payload is much more sophisticated and complex,” he said in an interview. 

Ingersoll said the satellite project has a budget of $88 million to cover production, launch and commissioning. MethaneSAT will likely piggyback on a bigger rocket as a secondary payload to keep costs low, he said. 

Ingersoll, the former chief executive of Skybox Imaging, said several people working on MethaneSAT have history working on the SkySat optical satellites his former company produced. 

Skybox Imaging built two mini-fridge-sized optical satellites that launched separately in 2013 and 2014. The company later outsourced production to Space Systems Loral (now Maxar Technologies), but its success with those SkySats helped accelerate the commercial use of smallsats. 

Ingersoll said EDF’s MethaneSAT subsidiary is leveraging that experience when choosing suppliers for its satellite. 

“We’ve raised money from donors, so we have to be very careful with the money we have, but we also need to make sure we have a platform that is ‘no-kidding’ going to work,” Ingersoll said. “We want traditional levels of reliability and performance at the NewSpace price level, and I think Blue Canyon does that perfectly.”

Ingersoll said MethaneSAT was impressed by Blue Canyon’s ability to scale up from smaller satellites to the 350-kilogram size MethaneSAT needs. Blue Canyon spokeswoman Hayle Bell told SpaceNews the MethaneSAT bus is the company’s largest so far. 

The Environmental Defense Fund has the goal of helping to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 45% by 2025. To do that, Ingersoll said MethaneSAT will provide data for free from its satellite. 

Ingersoll said MethaneSAT plans to rely on commercial ground communications companies to link with its greenhouse-gas detection satellite once in orbit. 

The New Zealand government is providing $16 million to support the satellite and build a mission control center in the country. Roughly $4 million of that is included in MethaneSAT’s $88 million budget to reach orbit and get started, with the remainder dedicated to later costs, such as ongoing operations, ground control and data handling, according to MethaneSAT. 

Ingersoll said MethaneSAT wants this first satellite to pave the way for commercial ventures to follow with their own methane-detection satellites. 

“Our hope is that there will be more methane-sats that will fly, but it’s also our hope that they are not going to be philanthropically funded,” he said. 

Ingersoll said MethaneSAT has worked with Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology and various trace gas detection organizations to verify the satellite’s sensor will work as planned. 

“If we fly a satellite and nobody believes the data, we have failed, so it is imperative that the data be unassailable,” he said. 

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