Scotland helps keep space Sustainable

Space debris, climate change, and Earth observation at the Space, Satellites, and Sustainability conference in Glasgow

Just one month before global leaders descend on Glasgow to discuss climate change at COP26, a group of researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs gathered in Scotland to discuss the pressing challenge of sustainability in space. Tackling everything from space debris to monitoring climate change, the Space, Satellites, and Sustainability conference covered sustainability in space as well as how we can use satellite observations support sustainable development here on Earth. The attendees of the conference reflected this diversity of topics, with speakers from the private sector, academia, and space agencies, as well as Scotland’s home-grown space industry.

One of the major themes of the conference was that satellite observations can help us understand our impact on the planet. Speaking on the threat of climate change, Susanne Mecklenburg of the ESA Climate Office described how more than 14,000 scientific papers have led to the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent announcement that “it is unequivocal that humans influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land”. She also explained that weather satellites and other spacecraft constantly scrutinising Earth’s surface are vital components in our efforts to monitor the extent and impact of climate change; of the 54 Essential Climate Variables scientists use to understand our climate, 36 can benefit from space data and 21 are measured by ESA, the European Space Agency. The UK is using this data as part of a pilot scheme to use spacecraft to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire country.

Satellites observations also help with sustainability on smaller scales. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh described how satellite observations are helping farmers predict their harvests and measure the carbon footprint —or hoofprint— of their herds. Speakers also discussed the possibility of “death-star-like satellites” – orbiting spacecraft which use powerful —but harmless— lasers to measure tree heights across the entire world’s surface. Satellites can also help preserve Scotland’s wild places, with satellite images helping ecologists map habitats in the Highlands and measure the extent of native woodland on the west coast.

As well as discussing sustainability here on Earth, speakers also discussed how space itself can be made more sustainable. With increasing amounts of space debris and ever-more-crowded orbits making spaceflight challenging, figuring out how to operate spacecraft sustainably is an increasingly important area of research. Engineers from Cranfield University discussed how geostationary orbit —home to many communication and weather satellites— could be made more sustainable by recycling derelict satellites. Their ambitious proposal would see a scavenging spacecraft harvest solar panels and other usable components from dead satellites, then using them to repair functioning spacecraft. While this proposal may not get off the ground any time soon, it is a tantalising glimpse what the future of spaceflight may look like.

Researchers speaking at the conference also looked to an unlikely source of inspiration for dealing with space debris — nuclear decommissioning.  Though they may not have much in common at first glance, the challenge of taking apart a nuclear power plant shares some similarities with removing space debris. Both tasks involve daunting technical challenges, huge costs, high stakes, and a degree of uncertainty. The two fields even have some technical cross-ever, with specially designed radiation-resistant robots used both in nuclear power plants and in space.

The conference even had some discussion of economic sustainability — how Scottish space start-ups can stay in business in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Richard Tipper of Scottish space data start-up Ecometrica warned of the challenges to new companies in Scotland’s growing space economy, as well as offering advice on how to stand out from the crowd.

No matter the field or forum, sustainability is an increasingly important part of all activities on Earth. Space, Satellites, and Sustainability highlighted the ways in which space observations help us take the pulse of the planet and make sustainable decisions, as well as shining light on the challenges of sustainably exploring and operating in space. From fledgling space data firms in Edinburgh to rocket manufacturers brewing green rocket fuel, companies and researchers across Scotland —and the world— are rising to these challenges.

Want to learn more about space sustainability? Check out the work of the Scottish Space Leadership Council.

Article written by Calum Turner, AstroAgency

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