As climate change warms the planet, sea levels rise, and wildfires become commonplace, humans edge more precariously onto the precipice of a much harsher landscape. According to experts, humanity’s environmental woes are so severe that a global-scale ecological catastrophe is already underway.
During such dire times, questions remain about the issues we are focusing our money and energy into. Among them, whether the current pursuit of space exploration and its cost is foolish or a cynical bet against planet Earth’s survival.
Spaceflight isn’t just a master-minded escape plan for the richest among us, though. The key to saving our planet, and humanity, partly relies on the innovations from space exploration. The commercial sector has already adopted inventions that were funded or designed by space agencies. These include several ecology-based projects like one that uses LED light color that triggers growth for indoor agriculture or satellites used to predict the weather and document climate change. Space technologies are evolving and can help us harness a more sustainable world.
Innovations like artificial intelligence, The Internet of Things (IoT), 5G networks and other robotic mechanics are paving the way for sustainability initiatives on Earth and in space. Incorporating these innovations into frontier technologies, or Space 2.0 technologies, can actively help to fight climate change. AI tools, in particular, can help reduce air pollution, hydrological risk, while also environmentally managing e-waste. For example, AI’s predictive analytics fostered by space monitoring can forecast metrics on air quality, solar/clouds, temperature and more regarding its ability to help decrease air pollution.
Additionally, 5G supported by new-age communication satellites can manage smart water supplies and help reduce water loss inefficiencies. As water is one primary medium through which we’ll experience climate change’s effects, 5G can be instilled into smart water management systems. In doing so, it offers real-time remote sensing that ensures faster response times, minimizes disruption flows, and reduces unaccounted water loss. At the same time, it can also support planning and operations via accurate demand predictions and cost savings via energy optimization for cities and states. Singapore uses a system called WaterWise in conjunction with the Public Utilities Board of Singapore (PUB). It achieves its sustainability goals by utilizing hundreds of sensors that feed insights into data-analytic tools, installed island-wide to detect pipe leaks and monitor water pressure, flow and quality.
Additionally, IoT networks, also supported by communication satellites, could manage smart infrastructure to help reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.
Communication technologies, in particular, could be key in meeting sustainability targets outlined by the Paris Agreement, which limit global warming to 1.5 celsius. Among these innovations, Space 2.0 technologies, the second generation of space systems.
Satellites to Track Weather and Climate Data
Satellite technology is one of the most crucial space tools to help curb the climate change crisis. Satellite data, communications, and its applications provide high-resolution, real-time global monitoring of the planet. Today, over 160 satellites measure various climate change indicators.
They also continue to provide data so scientists can track changes to geological features like ice sheets. Launched in 2018, NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite spacecraft (ICESat-2) monitors the thinning of sea ice and indicates how ice cover had disappeared from coastal parts of Greenland and Antarctica. Their latest satellite was developed to provide extra information on how ice cover decreases or changes over a year. Scientists use the data from these next-generation satellites – which take measurements every 85 centimeters along the ground path – to hopefully improve forecasts for rising sea levels and global weather and climate patterns.
Satellite imagery and climate data also supports sectors like agriculture, offering benefits to the communities they serve. Amazon Web Services and Digital Earth Africa use Open Data Cube to make global satellite data more accessible and can be used to help farmers improve food production to reduce hunger, tackle unregulated mining and its knock-on effects, and identify new opportunities for economic growth.
Today, more than 600 remote sensing satellites monitor borders to make the world more transparent. Within the context of climate change, it also helps protect ecological systems and wildlife on Earth. The International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) Initiative is one initiative that incorporates ISS satellite to monitor and protect wildlife. Scientists use this to track migratory patterns of birds and other animals from space with the help of small transmitters attached to their backs. This data is then processed back to the ISS, where it is transmitted to Earth’s facilities and offers a synopsis of animal life on Earth that is later synthesized into environmental data.
What’s more, space sensors also give Earth the benefit of reducing emissions from heating systems. Miniaturized ceramic gas sensor technology, originally developed for measuring oxygen levels aboard spacecraft reentry, is now used for systems that control heater combustion, a major source of pollutants. The system reduces exhaust gases that harm the environment and helps heating systems work at an optimum level, reducing fuel use by 15 to 20 percent.
While space technologies aren’t the end-all-be-all answer to improve climate change on Earth, they play a significant role in supporting how we manage life at home. According to the UN, over half of essential climate change variables can only be measured from space. In the future, investments in these tools will only increase and the need to advance other life-sustaining technologies on extraterrestrial planets will be needed too.
Consider how one day, we will build outposts on the moon and Mars that must replicate and sustain all of our planet’s life-giving essentials off-world. As such, we will need technologies capable of recycling essential resources like water, food, air to make these planets renewable and self-sustaining for current and future space exploration missions. It’s the progress we make in developing these innovations that we will continue to harness as models to preserve Earth’s wellbeing. It’s safe to say, the way to sustainability is up.