New technology created by Keene helps detect gas leaks from space

Two satellites are seen at Corning’s Advanced Optics facility in Keene, equipped with hyperspectral imaging sensors designed and manufactured by the plant. Satellites look for light waves created by oil leaks and natural gas pipelines, then generate signatures by reflecting the waves back from space. (Courtesy of Corning Inc.)

New imaging technology from the Keene division of a global glass, ceramics and optics company is helping to reduce the time and resources needed to identify environmental concerns such as oil pipeline leaks.

Employees at the Corning Advanced Optics plant on Island Street in Keene have been working with the San Francisco-based Orbital Sidekick (OSK) to develop sensors used on three low-Earth orbit OSK satellites launched this year that use hyperspectral imaging to detect oil and natural gas leaks.

Hyperspectral imaging is a form of sensor technology that analyzes light falling on satellite sensors to detect substances, according to Leon Desmarais, Corning’s product line leader, who is based in Keene and leads the company’s OSK partnership business.

OSK primarily works with investors in the oil and gas industry on all of its projects, Desmarais said, so from his perspective, the substances its satellites work to detect include liquid hydrocarbon and methane leaks.

The three satellites are currently orbiting the planet with Corning sensors make up what OSK calls the GHOSt constellation, an acronym for Global Hyperspectral Observation Satellite, according to industry news outlet Via Satellite. The satellites, which are about the size of an average dishwasher, send images from the ionosphere, about 310 miles above the Earth’s surface.

“Hyperspectral imaging can be used from the microscope to space, so it’s very versatile,” said Desmarais, who lives in Antrim. “… Every substance on Earth has a unique spectral signature as long as you have enough resolution to see it. That’s what our technology does is allow that resolution to see it.

Typically, analysts look for pipeline leaks using atmospheric methods such as aircraft flyovers and in-situ analysis. But with those approaches, “it takes a lot longer to get that data back,” Desmarais said.

“With enough satellites up there, [analysts] it can visit the same sites more often, see changes over time, see where there might be a leak and fix it faster,” he said.

The satellites were launched on April 15 and June 12 and with dozens of other spacecraft on SpaceX’s Transporter 7 and Transporter 8 rocket missions, according to the European Space Agency, and OSK released its first images of the constellation on August 23. Corning began working with OSK in 2019 and began developing its portion of the GHOSt project about two and a half years ago, Desmarais said.

The sensors made by Keene distinguish the color bands of electromagnetic waves or light waves and use the color data to identify objects or substances on land from space, Desmarais said. In a Corning news release, the company said spectral signatures are generated based on how a material reflects or emits light waves.

Corning states that its sensors can cover a light wavelength range of 400-2500 nanometers, including infrared and ultraviolet light. For reference, the human eye can only see light waves of 380-700 nanometers, according to NASA.

In Corning’s news release, OSK CEO Dan Katz said the GHOSt sensors can capture 100 times more information than other satellites.

“We can now survey an entire transcontinental pipeline in hours rather than weeks,” Katz said. “This year alone, we will oversee 124,000 miles of pipeline.”

Keene Satellite Team

Ryan Barlow, background, Eric Bauer, left, and Jesse Brown, right, who are Corning employees at the company’s plant in Keene, pose for a photo with a hyperspectral imaging sensor they helped develop for satellites launched by the San Francisco Orbital Sidekick. About 200 people worked on the hyperspectral project in Keene. (Courtesy of Corning Inc.)

About 200 people are involved in manufacturing the sensors at Keene’s Corning facility. Only 15 of them are the engineers behind the sensor technology, Desmarais said. Although there is support from the company’s main Sullivan Park campus just off the eponymous Corning, New York, he called it “mostly a Keene project.”

Jesse Brown, a hyperspectral system integration engineer based in Keene, said in the company’s news release that the facility staff is proud to see their work take off.

“At 3 a.m. on launch day, we were on the ground cheering,” Brown said in the release.

The images created by the locally developed satellite sensors will have a global impact on environmental research and climate change mitigation, Desmarais said. The Keene plant’s space work builds on earlier designs for ground systems involving drones and aircraft, he noted.

“In New York, [State University of New York] the system used [terrestrial systems] to find algal blooms, so we’re looking for harmful algae in the lakes,” said Desmarais.

Previous equipment the company has produced in Keene includes sensors for three mirror telescopes used on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescopeon which the plant operated from 2004-2010 with a team of 75-100 employees.

Since then, Corning’s Keene plant has focused on developing products with more commercial applications, such as the OSK hyperspectral sensors, according to Desmarais.

“In the last eight to 10 years, we’ve been doing a lot more on the commercial imaging side, making some finished products that we can market to anyone who wants to buy them, and going to different trade shows that are more focused on that commercial market,” he said.

OSK plans to terminate the GHOSt satellite mission on April 15, 2027, according to the European Space Agency. Meanwhile, Desmarais said Corning Keene employees are developing even more space-related projects, although they are not quite ready to launch.

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