Data from NASA’s Space-Based Tech Used to Spot CO2 Emission Sources

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2,  managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA

Observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 and 3 missions were used to pinpoint carbon dioxide emissions from one coal power plant.

Data from NASA’s space-based technology for observing Earth helped identify and track a single facility’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent study, enabling researchers to detect changes in that facility’s carbon dioxide production.

NASA’s announcement noted that the study, which focused on Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant and largest single emitter, demonstrated that space-based observations can be used to track CO2 emissions by source. This is important, as large facilities like power plants and refineries make up about half of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, according to the announcement.

Specifically, two Earth observation missions—NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 and 3—allowed researchers to “detect and track carbon dioxide (CO2) emission changes from a single facility, using the world’s fifth-largest coal-fired power plant as a test case,” according to the NASA announcement.

The missions enabled researchers to quantify the CO2 discharged hundreds of miles below at Bełchatów Power Station in Poland. Researchers analyzed emission plumes from the plant via satellite from 2017 to 2022 and detected changes in CO2 levels that aligned with the hourly fluctuations in generating electricity, as well as temporary or permanent shutdowns for maintenance or decommissioning, which reduced the plants emissions. According to the announcement, this indicates that observations from space can be used to track CO2 emission changes at a local level.

NASA’s OCO-2 satellite, which launched in 2014, maps natural and human-made CO2 emissions on regional to continental scales. In particular, “the instrument samples the gas indirectly by measuring the intensity of sunlight reflected off Earth’s surface and absorbed by carbon dioxide in the column of air from the ground to the satellite. OCO-2’s spectrometers are tuned to detect the specific signature of CO2 gas.” Extra components from OCO-2 were used to create OCO-3, which has flown on the International Space Station since 2019. It is “designed with a mapping mode that can make multiple sweeping observations as the space station passes over an area, allowing researchers to create detailed mini-maps from a city-scale area of interest.”

“Neither OCO instrument was originally designed specifically to detect emissions from individual facilities such as Bełchatów, so the new findings are a ‘pleasant surprise,’ Abhishek Chatterjee, project scientist for the OCO-3 mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in the announcement. “As a community we are refining the tools and techniques to be able to extract more information from the data than what we had originally planned. We are learning that we can actually understand a lot more about anthropogenic [human-made] emissions than what we had previously expected.”

Bełchatów Power Station is the largest lignite—or brown coal—fired power plant in the world, with approximately 5,102 megawatts of capacity. The announcement noted that typically lignite has higher emissions per megawatt generated than anthracite, or hard coal. Accordingly, the Polish government has proposed plans to close the power station by the end of 2036.

The study’s lead author, Ray Nassar—a senior researcher at Environment and Climate Change Canada—stated in the announcement that most CO2 emission reports “are created from estimates or data collected at the land surface” and “generally do not make actual atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements.”

“The finer details about exactly when and where emissions occur are often not available,” Nassar said. “Providing a more detailed picture of carbon dioxide emissions could help to track the effectiveness of policies to reduce emissions. Our approach with OCO-2 and OCO-3 can be applied to more power plants or modified for carbon dioxide emissions from cities or countries.”

OCO-3’s mapping mode observation could allow this data to be used more extensively in the future to quantify CO2 emissions from a particular source. According to NASA, OCO-3 will be in operation for another five or six years and will be used alongside the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation on the space station. 

OCO-2 and OCO-3 are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.