SpaceX launch carried an innovative piece of the Bakken into outer space
Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Before the pandemic, North Dakota’s iPipe initiative, which innovates leak detection and prevention Shark Tank style, was making inroads both nationally and internationally.

Well now the program is not just national, and not even just international. It is now also interstellar. With the most recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9, which carried 88 satellites into a sun synchronous orbit, one of the newest iPipe partners, Orbital Sidekick, has its very own satellite in space. It’s the Aurora hyperspectral imaging satellite, which has been specifically designed to look for hydrocarbons from space.

“The technology aboard the satellite provides high-resolution imagery not previously available to our industry, and we look forward to learning how to apply this new capability through our iPIPE partnership work,” said Darren Schmidt, Assistant Director for Subsurface R&D at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC).

Schmidt said the selection of Orbital Sidekick’s technology in 2019 resulted from work iPipe had been doing using data from existing satellites. That work was beneficial, but having a satellite that is actually designed to specifically look for hydrocarbons in orbit is obviously the next logical step up.

The Aurora satellite is the first of what Schmidt said will likely be more satellites for Orbital Sidekick, with better resolution and other improvements to come, based on experiences with this first satellite.

“As more satellites get up in space, you begin to build a constellation where you can get the data back more frequently,” Schmidt said.

Orbital Sidekick’s launch is part of the growing commercialization of space.

“The expectation is that we’re going to see more industrial satellites go up into space over the next few years, which will improve the efficacy or ability to actually do that type of work,” Schmidt said. “Today, we’re at the beginning of it, and anyways, it’s a quite exciting area of technology.”

The new satellite is not the only exciting new technology under development by iPipe.

“We’re also working with a company that has a point sensor, like you’d put a pressure sensor on a pipeline,” Schmidt said. “But the advancement is identifying leaks anywhere in the pipeline with a point sensor.”

The process works by listening in on pressure waves and using powerful cloud computing to analyze all of that data. To human ears, it would just be unintelligible noise, quickly tuned out. But an artificial intelligence that never sleeps can be programmed to listen perpetually.

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