What role can space technology play in helping us address some of the key challenges facing humanity on planet earth? Dr Kathryn O’Donnell investigates…
Bad news sells. At least that’s the conclusion from a quick scroll through social media or glance at any front page these days. But to be fair, there’s no shortage of worrying news out there. From geopolitical instability to inflation, the pandemic to economic inequalities, all of us are experiencing a panoply of challenges that are impossible to ignore.
In the face of this I often wonder how the industry I work in, the space industry, can contribute to global issues positively. Could the technology we have developed – and continue to develop – for space help us solve, or at least mitigate, some of the issues we are experiencing on planet earth?
Let’s consider three areas where space technology and services might have a role to play: climate change, defence and law enforcement, and global communication inequalities.
It’s well known – and largely undisputed – that unless humans do something differently we are going to have some form of climate-based catastrophe on the planet, and it may have already started.
The good news is there are things we can do to address this, and space tech is already heavily involved in providing us with data to monitor and better understand climate change in order to support this. Some 99
per cent of data used for accurate weather modelling comes from space based measurements, while over half of essential climate based indicators can only be measured from space.
Space-based systems are particularly suited to making such observations/measurements for a number of reasons. Firstly, through orbiting above the Earth as the planet rotates in space, they provide a unique, global perspective. Some measurements can only be made from space – if you want to measure the amount of a trace gas at the top of the earth’s atmosphere, it could be hard to do this from the ground, whereas it could be measured from space.
Secondly, if satellites are in place it can be easier to use them to collect data from remote, or inhospitable locations on the earth than it would be to place ground-based infrastructure there to do the same job.
Thirdly, satellites provide the capability to image the whole globe in a matter of hours, or continuously depending on the mission concept, providing up to date information as required. And finally, the issue of removing calibration issues between large numbers of ground-based sensors is negated if a single space-based asset is used.
It's also interesting to consider the variety of measurements that can be made from space. Environmental monitoring missions have been flown for many years, mostly from the early 1990s, using techniques such as imaging across different wavelengths of light, radar measurements and altimetry, sunlight backscattering and gas spectroscopy to name just a few. These have enabled measurement and monitoring of: natural resource usage; levels of key atmospheric gases such as oxygen, ozone, carbon dioxide, methane and water; and soil moisture and ocean salinity among others.
Defence and law enforcement
Now, defence in this context is possibly less about saving the planet but more about minimising the impact of conflicts.
Space tech has been valuable to defence ever since the launch of several communications satellites constellations in the 1960s. That’s because they provide reliable communications anywhere on the planet. So if you have troops in an operational theatre, they don’t need to have access to ground based infrastructure, as long as they have access to a satellite which can provide them with the necessary communications and intelligence.
The focus now is improving the flexibility of communications – making sure you can communicate between land, sea, air and space as easily as possible, and with as much data and as many data sources as possible. This will increase the quality and frequency of intelligence which can be provided to people on the ground.
Law enforcement can be a little different to defence but one area that space tech is particularly advantageous is when it comes to identifying the locations of, and tracking things that are where they probably shouldn’t be. For example, the ability to pinpoint boats at unexpected locations can have a huge impact on reducing crimes such as piracy and human trafficking.
Recent developments in linking into The Internet of Things over space networks also means that you can get very small sensors that can be attached and then be tracked from space when they are moving – regardless of where they are and the terrain they are traversing. Again, all very helpful to those operating in law enforcement.
Satellite communication and data services are absolutely crucial to certain areas of the planet. If a natural disaster takes place your ground based infrastructure can be wiped out – how do you alert people to what’s happened? Well, that’s where satellite communications – impervious to such disasters – can come in.
Then there’s other aspects of global telecommunications inequality that space-based services can help address. A good example of this is telemedicine – the ability to transport cutting edge health data and information to remote villages that wouldn’t otherwise have access to that level of care. This demonstrates the role that space services play in helping connect people on planet earth, helping us to help and save each other.
Reach for the stars
So can space tech save the planet? No, not on its own. But can it give us the tools to help? Yes, it absolutely can. These technologies and services are hugely useful but we need to act with them - -only then will they have the impact we all want to see.
It’s down to us – let’s get to it.
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