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The Nord Stream pipeline started leaking last month in a suspected act of sabotage. Photo: AP

China used advanced satellite technology to monitor Nord Stream leak

  • The Gaofen-5 02 satellite provided the first accurate estimate of the leak from the suspected act of sabotage, scientists involved in the project say
  • The country is currently building up its own database of carbon emissions, including methane
China used new satellite technology to obtain the earliest accurate estimate about the damage to the Nord Stream pipeline, according to researchers involved in the project.

The Russian-built pipelines supplying natural gas to Europe were hit by a series of explosions on September 26 in a suspected act of sabotage by unknown parties.

Sweden sends special diving vessel to area of Nord Stream pipeline leaks

After the attack, the Chinese government ordered one of its most advanced Earth observation satellites to find out how much methane – a major greenhouse gas – had escaped into the atmosphere.

Most greenhouse gas monitoring satellites can only measure the total emissions over vast areas, but the Chinese scientists say, without providing precise details, they can narrow the area measured significantly.

On October 1, Canadian satellite operator GHGSat released the first publicly available estimate based on satellite data collected the previous day, which showed that a ruptured spot on the pipe Nord Stream 2 was leaking gas at a rate of over 20 tonnes per hour.


But the data collected by China’s Gaofen-5 02 satellite at the same location on the same date suggested the leak could have reached 70 tonnes per hour.

In a statement posted on the website of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics on October 3, the Chinese team said they had confidence in their results.

“Accurate monitoring of methane emissions from space is an international challenge. The hyperspectral cameras on Gaofen-5 and other satellite platforms have been proven successful in precise monitoring of methane emissions many times before,” they said in the statement.

China’s Gaofen-5 02 satellite detected a rupture in Nord Stream 2 pipeline and estimated the speed of leakage reached 70 tonnes per hour. Photo: Handout

On October 5 the Canadian company said its earlier figures had underestimated the leak and updated the figure to 79 tonnes per hour.

The Gaofen 5-02 satellite, which was launched in September last year, has ultra-sensitive infrared sensors that can trace a cloud of methane gas in the atmosphere to its origin.


Methane gas absorbs part of the sunlight in the infrared range, but the change in the light spectrum is so small that most existing infrared detectors cannot pick up the signal from orbit.

The satellite was hailed by the China Association of Remote Sensing Applications as a major breakthrough in remote sensing technology because other countries could not detect or measure methane emissions with such a high accuracy.


‘Sabotage’ behind gas leaks in Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines, say EU, Nato officials

‘Sabotage’ behind gas leaks in Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines, say EU, Nato officials
China has launched a number of advanced satellites in recent years to build up its own global climate database, including the DQ-1, which launched in April and is the first satellite to use laser beams to make a precise count of carbon dioxide molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere.

China has a growing interest in climate data and has previously expressed concern that climate change models and United Nations assessments are mostly built on data sets produced by Western countries that may be skewed in their favour – potentially hampering China’s development unfairly.

In 2018, Chinese Academy of Sciences vice-president Ding Zhongli told the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily that whoever had the scientific data would have the initiative in international negotiations on emissions targets.

“To a certain extent, the right to carbon emissions is equal to the right to development ... In the game of international negotiation, we use scientific data to speak,” he said.

China calls for inquiry into Nord Stream gas pipeline leaks

The infrared technology used in methane detection could also find applications in surveillance for military targets, according to a paper by researchers involved in the development of the Gaofen-5 02 satellite published in July in the domestic peer-reviewed journal Infrared and Laser Engineering.

Chinese scientists have recently achieved a number of breakthroughs in military infrared technology including heat-seeking hypersonic missiles that can home in on a moving car at more than five times the speed of sound, and a ground-based infrared radar that can pick up the heat signature of an aircraft from a distance of 300 kilometres.