There are more than two million miles of gas pipeline in the United States alone. Monitoring these vast stretches can be costly, and potentially dangerous leaks can still be difficult to detect with today’s sensor and surveillance technologies.
That’s why Orbital Sidekick has turned to space-based hyperspectral imaging – the process of observing an object’s chemical makeup to determine its chemical makeup, or “spectral signature” – which in the case of pipelines, can detect invisible traces methane gas.
According to Dan Katz, co-founder and CEO of Orbital Sidekick, this ability to peer into the spectral realm is wrought with possibility. “It almost seems like an unobserved part of the world,” he said.
In this episode of the New Space podcast, Dan joined us to discuss how his company is visualizing the hyperspectral signatures of objects of interest down to the molecule.
Dan and his co-founder both got their starts in the commercial aerospace industry, helping to design, build, and launch satellites. Thanks to previous work observing the spectral signatures of celestial bodies, Dan also understood the value such a process could bring to the commercial market.
Soon, he decided to merge his areas of experience into a new company.
“So, we kind of combined all of that together,” he explained, “We know satellites very well. We know spectral imaging. We know this emerging and clean energy marketplace…what some of the issues are within the energy sector…how can we help solve them?”
“We started Orbital Sidekick back in 2016 in my garage in my apartment in San Francisco,” he explained.
They began by putting hyper-spectral imagery on regular aircraft, before eventually installing a hyper-spectral camera on the international space station—and finally, launching their own cluster of satellites, each equipped to provide customers with a range of analytic products.
Dan explained to us how Orbital Sidekick’s capabilities are fundamentally different from the vast majority of the earth observation happening today.
“Most of these data sets that exist today are for spatial information…to look at the shape of something.” Dan said. “Now we're looking at the shape of a spectrum and looking at reflective absorption features within the spectrum… And instead of looking at three color bands, we're looking at 500 color bands. You have 100 times more data than you would get from a normal pixel… It allows you to really see and identify the molecular makeup of objects.”
As an example of this technology in use, Dan talked about the company’s work with oil and gas pipeline operators.
“We have a base package of 44 analytical products derived from our hyperspectral data,” he explained. “One of which is methane detection.” Dan went on to clarify the science: “So with methane [appearing] at certain wavelengths and electromagnetic spectrums… there are some unique absorption features that with the hyperspectral imagery, you can discern that yep, I see methane, or I don't see methane. Or I see it at a certain concentration level.” And with millions of miles of pipeline in need of monitoring, this easier detection method for leaks and potential damage is invaluable.
Hyperspectral imagery from Orbital Sidekick is also being utilized for defense purposes, including in the recent war in Ukraine. According to Dan, these applications include “camouflage detection, troop movements…chemical weapon detection and WMD detection…plume detection for launch for missile launches and rock launches.” The goal, he explained, is to “provide intelligence that can help the war fighter on the ground and help save lives.”
Moving forward, Dan sees spectral imagery being utilized across an even wider range of commercial and government usages, from agricultural management to the mining of rare earth minerals. And with the nearly endless potential for real-world applications, Dan is determined to keep things progressing at a steady and sustainable pace.