The Global Hyperspectral Observation Satellite (GHOSt) constellation. (Image: Orbital Sidekick)

New satellites equipped with Corning’s advanced hyperspectral-imaging technology can detect pipeline leaks and other environmental issues, providing precise monitoring and exploration capabilities for businesses and governments.

As the world continues its ongoing fight against climate change, the sooner we can detect threats to our planet’s health, the sooner we can fix them. This work is especially critical in the oil and gas industry. With pipelines that snake across continents, early detection of harmful greenhouse gas leaks is essential to mitigate risk while ensuring continued and efficient operations. That’s the challenge Silicon Valley start-up Orbital Sidekick (OSK) approached Corning with as it built its Global Hyperspectral Observation Satellite (GHOSt) constellation in 2023. Each of the six spacecraft in the constellation features a Corning sensor that can detect the unique spectral signatures from greenhouse gas pollutants and can process the data in real time.

Corning is known for deep expertise in advanced optics for aerospace, semiconductor applications, spectrometry, precision machining, and fabrication. This expertise builds on Corning’s core competencies in glass and ceramics. Those competencies include the creation of cover glass on many consumer electronic devices, the substrates and filters found in automotive emissions-control systems, and many other technical innovations. Corning also knows how light travels across spectrums and transits through and around materials, which is the expertise the Corning team employs to deliver for customers like OSK.

A GHOSt satellite awaits launch via a SpaceX rocket. (Image: Orbital Sidekick)

OSK’s mission: use satellite technology to monitor oil and gas pipelines for leaks, particularly leaks of methane – a greenhouse gas that can be more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The sooner an issue is recognized, the faster OSK can report these threats to its customers for fast action. Delivering on this mission required a team of skilled engineers from Corning’s Keene, New Hampshire, facility to develop some of the most advanced hyperspectral imaging sensors that exist today. These sensors capture 500 bands of light with 100x more spectral information than traditional satellites.

How Corning’s Hyperspectral Sensor Works

Corning’s hyperspectral sensor is a powerful tool that provides critical information to OSK’s analytics team, which can then isolate the distinctive spectral “fingerprints” left by materials like water, methane, or a corn crop. A material’s unique spectral signature is based on how it reflects or emits electromagnetic energy, also known as light waves.

Where the human eye can only see light waves with wavelengths between 450 to 700 nanometers, Corning hyperspec-tral sensors cover the full spectral range from 400 to 2,500 nanometers, including infrared and ultraviolet light waves. This technology helps our customers see what would go unseen by less-granular technologies. Enabled by a proprietary Corning spectrograph, the sensor breaks incoming light from a single material into its component colors – similar to a prism – using high-fidelity, diamond-turned mechanical slits and gratings.

Imaging spectrographs offer three distinct benefits:

  • All spectral data for each pixel is acquired simultaneously rather than sequentially, thereby reducing under-sampling of the target area.

  • The spectrograph offers high light gathering power with fast f/#, without angle sensitivity.

  • The spectrograph produces high spectral fidelity with minimal spectral/spatial mixing.

Following data collection by the Corning sensor, and its transfer back to earth, OSK software tools process images in a way that brings remarkable precision to the hunt for specific materials. Orbital Sidekick can now survey an entire transcontinental pipeline in hours rather than weeks. This year alone, the company will monitor 124,000 miles of pipeline and are already beginning to identify and report suspected methane leaks, liquid hydrocarbon leaks, and intrusions like construction that could cause leaks.

Bringing Hyperspectral Technology to Space

Traditionally, Corning technologies have been used in agriculture, health care, and industrial applications. Unlike these terrestrial applications, low-earth-orbit applications present unique challenges. Chief among them is producing a high-performance and highly survivable optic that can maintain performance during the launch into space – one of the most stressful events a system can undergo. Corning’s low-earth-orbit hyperspectral sensors are manufactured using a space-qualified coating process to help to maintain quality in space and help prevent degradation. Further, Corning’s mirrors and optics are tested using advanced opto-mechanical finite element analysis. This simulates the environmental stresses that the system will undergo and determines if anything will move out of alignment, even down to the micron level. We use thermal shock chambers, a shock/vibration facility, humidity chambers, and simulations for deep Cryogenic (<6 °K) environments to ensure integrated systems retain optical tolerances.

Corning’s Keene, New Hampshire facility has evolved its rich legacy of producing high performance and durable reflective optics into developing fully integrated electro-optic assemblies. To support this, we’ve matured our design, manufacturing, test, and assembly capabilities to build larger aperture systems that have increased both our sensitivity and optical resolution over time. For Orbital Sidekick, that means more efficient and effective monitoring capabilities.

Why Corning’s Technology Matters

Two GHOSt satellites being equipped with Corning’s hyperspectral sensor technology.

Unlike other hyperspectral products with multiple sensors, Corning’s hyperspectral solution delivers its powerful 400-2,500 nm range with a single detector. This reduces the weight of the system while also minimizing potential complications of recording and post-processing imagery from two or more sensors. One of the challenges for our customers is getting the large volume of data down from space associated with a multi-sensor instrument. The fact that Corning technology allows our customers to compress our solution into one image file helps them get the data faster, while also streamlining the overhead and processing time to gain useful insights. Corning’s vertical integration directly enables the single detector solution. The ability to design and manufacture accurate blazed gratings, with precision alignment features, enables integral light control. This is complimented by precise slits with sub-micron edge quality.

Corning fabricates the sensor’s supporting components and reflective optics from aluminum. This is a far lighter solution than using traditional silica-based glass mirrors. A lighter payload can make all the difference for a successful deployment aboard both drones and satellites. Moreover, aluminum offers cost benefits as it’s less expensive than traditional glass mirrors. Having a single material thermal expansion that is both well-known and easy to design with, helps to reduce engineering time.

The View Ahead

In Corning’s commercial hyperspectral product line, customers can uncover insights from the ultraviolet to the near infrared with just one sensor.

Critical energy infrastructure monitoring is only the start of what applications like OSK’s GHOSt constellation may offer. By combining Corning’s advanced hyperspectral sensor with our customers’ intelligence and analytics, we foresee future, life-changing applications for agriculture, mineral exploration, carbon offset verification, defense, and more. In turn, our customers, like OSK, will be able to offer insights to support sustainability and safety efforts, anywhere in the world.

Our customers are only just beginning to tap into the potential of hyper-spectral technology, and Corning is ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with our customers, big and small, to help further its adoption. Each night, when we see a shimmering satellite in the night sky, we feel pride knowing that our technology may very well be aboard – a keystone component that is helping to transform our planet’s ecology for the better.

This article was written by Bob Benson, Systems Engineering Supervisor, and Leon Desmarais, Product Line Manager, Remote Sensing at Corning Incorporated with contributions by Matt Paige, Program Manager, Remote Sensing. For more information, visit here .