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Climate change has been named the defining challenge of our time. From anomalous weather conditions to catastrophic natural disasters, it’s hard to underestimate the global symptoms of the upcoming climate crisis. Scientists predict the average temperature will rise by three degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century if humanity doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions. Warmer Earth leads to more frequent droughts, heavier rainfall, and more powerful hurricanes, lack of freshwater, and other ruthless conditions for humanity and wildlife.
To discuss possible solutions, leaders from 196 countries will arrive in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021 for the COP-26 global environmental summit. It is expected that countries will set out ambitious goals to reduce emissions and the risk of disasters through systematic efforts. Meanwhile, space technologies offer many opportunities for monitoring and improving the climate situation.
How the space industry can help with climate change
The space industry is said to be resource-consuming and unecological. However, it is essential so far as various satellites provide critical services such as communication, navigation, and Earth observation. The space industry allows billions of people to keep in touch every day and opens major opportunities for businesses, governments, military services, and consumers.
In addition, the space industry plays a crucial role in gauging the threats of the climate crisis. With the help of emerging technologies, scientists monitor extreme weather, track endangered wildlife, provide valuable data to the agricultural sector, monitor the ozone layer, and do even more.
Here are some of the key environmental functions provided by space technologies:
- Weather and climate change monitoring
Meteorological methods of forecasting weather have significantly improved over the past decade. To provide more accurate weather forecasts and monitor climate change, climatologists and glaciologists rely on continuous satellite observations, radar, and LiDAR technologies to study climate change processes in almost real time. Many scientific discoveries concerning climate change have been made thanks to space-based data. For example, the Topex-Poseidon and Envisat missions have shown through space altimetry that oceans have been rising over the past decade.
Earth observation systems can also lower the damage and loss in case of natural disasters using an early warning system. This is one of the critical functions of space science and technology.
- Protecting wildlife
Currently, many different methods are used for monitoring, tracking, and protecting wild animals. Space technologies such as satellite navigation, satellite imagery and finding new ways to help protect the health of wild animal populations around the world. By comparing historical data from satellites to current satellite imagery, scientists analyse trends and changes to develop plans for protecting natural habitats.
- Battling deforestation
Satellite-based monitoring systems also help with battling deforestation across the world. The UK Space Agency invested in the Forest 2020 project to help protect and restore up to 300 million hectares of tropical forests by improving forest monitoring in six partner countries through advanced uses of satellite data. With the help of Earth-orbiting satellites, 22 African countries monitor the decrease in forest cover in the tropics. This free service sends automated warnings and high-resolution satellite data to local governments and other organisations involved in decreasing deforestation. In 2023, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch Biomass, a satellite that will map the world’s forests and track how much land a forest covers and even how much wood exists in it.
- Providing valuable data to the agricultural sector
The agricultural sector can benefit from remote sensing satellites that provide key data for monitoring soil, snow cover, drought, and crop development, allowing businesses to be more profitable, more efficient, safer, and more environmentally friendly. Accurate information and analysis can also help predict a region’s agricultural output well in advance and can be critical in anticipating and mitigating the effects of food shortages and famines.
- Keeping track of the world’s water resources
Climate change leads to floods and droughts due to increasingly severe weather conditions that cause worldwide economic damage, loss of nature, increased political and societal tensions, and ultimately the loss of lives. Satellites contribute to an understanding of the global water cycle and allow us to improve freshwater management. Space technologies provide a rapid and cost-effective tool for tracking changes to inland water sources, monitoring ocean level and measuring ice thinning.
Opportunities for the UK space industry
Despite Brexit-related challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) aims to strengthen the UK space industry and build a strong national space capability to bring the maximum economic, scientific, and regulatory benefits to the country. According to the Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2020 report, there are more than 1,200 organisations, both private and governmental, engaging in confirmed space-related activities.
Recently, British officials passed spaceflight regulations, which open another door to space exploration. The legislation establishes the basis for regulating the UK space sector and allows launches from British soil. Over the next decade, it has the potential to generate £4 billion in market opportunities, creating thousands of jobs and supporting communities across the UK.
With a global trend toward space exploration and commercialisation, the amount of space debris in the Earth’s orbits, especially in low-earth orbit, is also increasing. The removal of space debris is key to sustainability in space. Various anti-satellite systems and collisions may have disastrous consequences. As a result, space-based observations for weather forecasting, climate monitoring, earth sciences, and potentially satellite communications can be affected or lost.
The UK may take a leadership position in monitoring and tackling space junk. UKSA and the Ministry of Defence have signed formal agreements to work together on monitoring threats and have invested £1 million to combat space debris. This funding will help the UK grasp this opportunity and in doing so create sought-after expertise and new high-skill jobs across the country.
The UK also plans activities related to climate change. Two UK companies have received nearly £15 million from the UK Space Agency, through the European Space Agency’s Pioneer Partnership Programme, to develop three satellites to monitor and tackle climate change and track endangered wildlife. The launch of the UK-built satellites was scheduled for 25 June 2021 on a SpaceX rocket, but it has been postponed.
The biggest challenges in the space sector
Alongside great achievements and emerging technologies, the space sector still faces a list of challenges and obstacles:
- Data analysis and technical limitations
First of all, there are still gaps in the coverage of Earth observations caused by sensor limitations. Governments and private Earth Observation (EO) organisations are seeking higher resolutions and greater coverage as well as shorter revisit time. Integrating data into larger information systems can also be complex and time-consuming, especially for real-time applications (e.g. sea traffic monitoring, oil slick detection).
- Lack of competitors and high prices
With the rise of private space companies and revolutionary approaches, we’re observing a significant cost reduction. SpaceX became the first private company to carry supplies to the ISS and satellites to orbit at ridiculously low prices. SpaceX charges £44 million to launch a telecommunications satellite to orbit, which results in £3,360 per kilogram. United Launch Alliance – a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing – charges between £10,000 and £28,000 per kilogram. Lowering launch costs will allow more companies to send things into outer space cheaper and make the space market more competitive.
- Sustainable space
Reusable launchers are being used by a few companies to reduce costs, increase launch frequencies, and lower the amount of space junk.
NASA’s research estimates there are close to 6,000 tons of human-made materials in low earth orbit. SpaceX was the first company to successfully create reusable rockets, allowing space travel to become more sustainable. Currently, more companies are investing in the development of reusable space technologies, and this allows us to reduce the amount of debris floating around the atmosphere and space.
Another eco-trend is sustainable fuel. Today’s fuels are mostly based on fossil fuels. However, some promising startups are looking for eco-friendly solutions using solar energy, water, and renewable carbon sources. Truly environmentally friendly space travel is still some ways off. But we already have many of the technologies needed to start limiting the impact of space travel on our planet.
Currently, global climate change is recognised as one of the most urgent and crucial issues in creating a sustainable future for humankind. Space technology is playing a vital role as a key source of critical data because of its global monitoring capabilities. It is necessary to use the most effective techniques and methods for investigating climate change to get an advantage from analysing and evaluating the huge variety of data sources. At the same time, we want to benefit from space more extensively in the future, so the space industry should reduce its carbon footprint and ensure that exploration and commercial exploitation of space is carried out sustainably. It is doing this by offsetting emissions, pioneering the use of sustainable fuels, developing reusable space hardware, and ensuring that space debris is kept to a minimum and removed from orbit where possible.
UK institutions should provide support to agencies and private space exploration organisations as they monitor the state of the planet and provide valuable data required to battle climate change. To build on existing and future capabilities, private sector participation also will require further encouragement through a supportive legal and regulatory environment for commercial activities and the encouragement of private provision of space goods and services whenever possible.