New Zealand's first government-funded space mission aims to track global methane emissions

Kiwi scientists will soon be measuring global methane emissions with data collected by a satellite, in New Zealand's first-ever government-funded space mission.

MethaneSAT launched on Tuesday from California onboard a SpaceX rocket, in a partnership between the US and New Zealand which aims to hold the world's worst polluters to account.

RocketLab's HQ has put more than 170 satellites into orbit, but today's mission carries extra weight.

"It's an absolute pleasure to be here to celebrate what is a historic day in New Zealand government's space history," head of New Zealand Space Agency Iain Cossar told a room packed with stakeholders and scientists.

Although the US is leading the mission, New Zealand is in charge of operating MethaneSAT - a washing machine-sized satellite that will sweep the globe using a high-resolution infrared sensor to detect methane emissions.

RocketLab CEO Peter Beck said RocketLab's work on the mission really begins when the satellite goes into orbit.

"So pointing the satellite to areas of interest, pull all the data down and then coordinating all of the requests coming from scientists around the world to make sure we utilise the spacecraft to its maximum potential."

Kiwi scientists will also lead MethaneSAT's science programme, which will track methane emitted from not only oil and gas production but, for the first time, agriculture, with the same precision as ground-based monitoring equipment.

NIWA carbon chemistry and modelling principal scientist Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher said she dreamed of being involved in a mission like this since she was a young girl.

"To have the opportunity to work with an amazing team of people both here in Aotearoa and in the US solving a major climate problem for the first time ever is beyond exciting."

She said no one has mapped methane emissions from agriculture from space with this precision before.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity to be the first group worldwide to develop this capability to not only give us more information here at home, but really to support emissions reductions all around the world."

Mikaloff-Fletcher said the state-of-the-art satellite can measure over a large area and map methane at high spatial resolution and with unprecedented precision.

Methane doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but it's potent - responsible for 30 percent of the global warming that drives climate change.

Yet many countries don't know how much of it their agricultural industries are emitting.

Environmental Defence Fund's chief economist Suzi Kerr said the technology isn't about blaming farmers.

"It's about working with farmers and supporting them and pushing them a little to make the changes that need to be made on the ground."

RocketLab will operate the satellite in space and collect its data, while training up the Auckland University Space Institute to take over.

Auckland University deputy vice-chancellor Frank Bloomfield said the university recognised the opportunity to be at the forefront of a growing area of research, and the need to train the next generation of space engineers and leaders in the space industry.

"The potential for further partnership with industry, further spin-outs, and the contribution the space sector can make to the ecomomy is huge," Bloomfield said.

The question now is whether, once it's collected, the data will actually push companies and countries to take action to lower methane emissions.