Laser remote sensing measurements of trace gases from orbit can provide unprecedented information about important planetary science and answer critical questions about planetary atmospheres. Methane (CH4) is the second most important anthropogenically produced greenhouse gas. Though its atmospheric abundance is much less than that of CO2 (1.78 ppm vs. 380 ppm), it has much larger greenhouse heating potential. CH4 also contributes to pollution in the lower atmosphere through chemical reactions, leading to ozone production. Atmospheric CH4 concentrations have been increasing as a result of increased fossil fuel production, rice farming, livestock, and landfills. Natural sources of CH4 include wetlands, wild fires, and termites, and perhaps other unknown sources. Important sinks for CH4 include non-saturated soils and oxidation by hydroxyl radicals in the atmosphere.
Remotely measuring CH4 and other biogenic molecules (such as ethane and formaldehyde) on Mars also has important implications on the existence of life on Mars. Measuring CH4 at very low (ppb) concentrations from orbit will dramatically improve the sensitivity and spatial resolution in the search for CH4 vents and sub-surface life on other planets.
A capability has been developed using lasers and spectroscopic detection techniques for the remote measurements of trace gases in open paths. Detection of CH4, CO2, H2O, and CO in absorption cells and in open paths, both in the mid- IR and near-IR region, has been demonstrated using an Optical Parametric Amplifier laser transmitter developed at GSFC. With this transmitter, it would be possible to develop a remote sensing methane instrument.
CH4 detection also has very important commercial applications. Pipeline leak detection from an aircraft or a helicopter can significantly reduce cost, response time, and pinpoint the location. The main advantage is the ability to rapidly detect CH4 leaks remotely. This is extremely important for the petrochemical industry. This capability can be used in manned or unmanned airborne platforms for the detection of leaks in pipelines and other areas of interest where a CH4 leak is suspected.
This work was done by Haris Riris, Kenji Numata, Steve Li, Stewart Wu, Anand Ramanathan, and Martha Dawsey of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16184-1