Former Gov. Jerry Brown rode off to his Colusa County ranch nine months ago, and since then his successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, has downsized several of Brown’s signature projects. These include the troubled high-speed rail program and a plan to build massive pipelines to ship water from the Sacramento River to aqueducts in the San Joaquin Valley.
But Newsom is moving forward and even expanding on another one of Brown’s other pet projects — his “damn satellite” to track methane emissions in response to the Trump Administration’s skepticism on climate change. Newsom's administration is looking at ways to gather information beyond methane emissions — and to potentially pay for additional units.
“We’re still engaged with our Planet and JPL partners,” said Stanley Young, communications director for the powerful California Air Resources Board (CARB). “In fact, Planet has begun construction of the satellite. The state (also) has a contract with Teledyne to grow wafers for the (measuring) instrument. It continues to be a firm project, and the new administration is committed to using satellite data.”
Planet, formerly Planet Labs, is a San Francisco-based Earth imaging company that designs and manufactures miniature satellites called Doves that are delivered into orbit as secondary payloads. Although often described as the size of a loaf of bread, Young — who has seen the satellite being built for the state — said it resembles a large box of Kleenex.
The satellite is still a long way from becoming operational. Young said the goal is to launch it within five years and attributed much of that to the lead time needed to develop technology that’s not available off the shelf. Examples include its CHROMA 640x480 MCT focal plane array (FPA), which is made out of mercury cadmium telluride; and its customized readout integrated circuit (ROIC) that will transmit the data, which is now being developed by Caltech.
“It takes two to three years to grow the wafers, integrate them, test everything, develop the FPA/ROIC integration, and be sure there is a space-worthy instrument,” Young said. He noted the timeline is far shorter than NASA’s, which often takes decades between conceptualizing a mission and getting to launch.
The detector will be mounted on a ceramic grid package, and the optical elements will be transparent to the full solar spectrum (250-2500 nanometers), ranging from ultraviolet, visible to the near-infrared. Young said typical lenses for consumer cameras are transparent for wavelengths of 400-700nm, and so-called night vision (infrared) security cameras extend that range to 1100nm, the upper limit of silicon-based detectors.
Brown announced last September that the state would boldly go where no state had gone before and would launch its own satellite. He had first advanced the idea at the end of 2016 at a conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, saying: “If Trump turns off the (NASA) satellites, California will launch its own damn satellites.”
As a signal of the Newsom administration’s commitment, oversight of the program has been transferred from the Air Board to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, which is headed by his senior climate adviser, Kate Gordon. Young added that the state is now looking at other kinds of data that could be measured by the satellite — in part to fund and expand the project’s scope.
“We’re continuing to look at non-methane slices of information,” Young said. “In the past, much of this data — including vegetation cover, soil moisture and carbon content — has been used by other state agencies. We’re also committed to working with other jurisdictions (other states and subnational provinces in other countries) that would want to make use of what the satellite would see over their land mass.”
Private-sector users such as large farms and timber plantations may also be interested in obtaining data because it will be more accessible than in the past, Young said. In addition, KQED recently reported that OPR’s Gordon suggested that the satellite could monitor chlorophyll levels in vegetation, information that could be used to determine where there are wildfire risks.
While other revenue streams are being explored, funding for the project at this point continues to be provided by $3 million donated by the Overlook International Foundation and the Grantham Foundation. Planet has agreed to provide the methane data to the state at no charge.
Young said the program is building from a 10-year-old state program that has identified methane hot spots by ground monitoring and data captured by an airplane. The long-term goal remains to launch a “constellation” of the small satellites to provide constant monitoring of California and other parts of the planet. He told Techwire last year that one satellite could only cover a ribbon about 50 miles wide and that a dozen or so satellites would be needed to provide blanket coverage.
“We’re going to get one satellite up there, and the long-term vision is a sustainable constellation that could be funded by the non-methane data stream,” Young said.
Planet launches its miniature satellites into low-Earth orbit — Young said they are ejected from the launch vehicle much like candy from a Pez dispenser — and are designed to burn up in the atmosphere after two or three years. This business model allows for lower construction costs since the satellites don’t have to withstand cosmic radiation for decades as larger satellites are designed to do. And because technology advances so quickly, replacing them every few years will allow for the most up-to-date equipment to be utilized.
In an email to Techwire, Planet declined to provide further information about the project or additional benefits.
“Since we’re still in the early stages of the partnership, Planet does not have anything further to share outside of what has already been disclosed,” wrote company spokesperson Claire Bentley.
The company, founded in 2010, has more than 150 satellites in orbit and says it can image any place on Earth daily at 3 meter and 72 centimeter resolution. Images from the company’s satellites in recent weeks have shown the aftermath of a massive U.S. bombing campaign against an ISIS-held island in northern Iraq, documented the extent of fires in the Amazon and tracked an Iranian oil tanker suspected of delivering oil to Syria.