Space and Climate Change: Innovations in Space Solving Earth’s Crisis

 In Apogee

This Earth Day, Apogee is elevating the important relationship between space and climate change. How can significant investment and innovations in space help solve the climate crisis?

A Space and Time for Climate

After years working at a leisurely pace on reversing climate change, the United States is resetting its policy goals and pledging to make up for lost time.

Since President Biden took office in January, his Administration has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, and appointed Gina McCarthy as national climate advisor and Senator John Kerry as climate envoy. Just yesterday, Biden pledged to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

The White House has announced major investment plans, including an infrastructure plan whose thesis rests on shaping the economy away from fossil fuel dependence, such as through a proposed $174 billion in electric vehicle incentives and another $100 billion in updating and greening the power grid.

While insufficient in the eyes of Green New Deal-focused organizations such as Sunrise, these changes mark a significant acceleration of US climate efforts.

The Biden Administration is exhorting all corners of the government to consider climate in their planning, and to bring their capabilities to bear to make a difference. Space-related agencies are leading the way, as they have for decades.

For the Department of Defense, climate is now a key consideration in wargaming and operational planning, with a “Climate Risk Analysis” currently underway. Space Force is also investing in a new EO/IR Weather System (EWS) program and Arctic monitoring, both seeking data for military uses as well as potentially strengthening NOAA’s world-leading research into how Arctic weather changes could affect the course of climate change.

NASA, a longstanding leader in climate science, has joined the National Climate Task Force and has redoubled its R&D efforts, aided by a proposed 15% increase to its 2022 Earth Science budget used to “initiate the next generation of Earth-observing satellites to study pressing climate science questions.”

The Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Global Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University has a particularly large role to play, elevated further by its director, Gavin Schmidt, being appointed NASA acting senior climate advisor.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) is developing new climate datasets to baseline climate “normal,” just the latest effort among hundreds.

Given their historical role – and renewed focus – on climate, space agencies and industry offer unmatched capabilities and innovation at the nexus of space and climate.

For decades, weather and other Earth observation satellites have provided critical data for studying our climate – the GOES satellites, among many more, provide critical climate and weather data that the whole world relies on.

The OECD notes space observation data’s criticality to monitoring ice, oceans, the global water cycle, pollutants, and more. UNOOSA similarly highlights the importance of space to disaster response, whose necessity will continue to grow as humanity experiences the fallout of climate change. After GPS, NOAA’s architecture is widely considered to be the most critical of the entire space enterprise.

These essential climate monitoring systems will soon be joined by new missions like the Environmental Defense Fund’s MethaneSAT which will vastly improve the tracking of, and response to, global methane emissions, as well as a new constellation, Carbon Mapper, developed jointly by the state of California, JPL, and Planet.

The importance of Earth observation and space-based data will only continue to grow with the challenge, but its availability and application will also grow. Karina Drees of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation recently wrote in The Hill that the explosion of commercial remote sensing data, and its dissemination, will be a particular boon to global efforts.

In fact, as noted in our last Apogee, many space startups offering remote sensing as a service will prove their investment theses by working on the climate challenge. This use case for space-based assets and research is crystal clear.

Yet space has much more to offer the climate crisis beyond monitoring its progression – contributions which are more often overlooked, but growing rapidly.

A Growth Environment

The space and climate change challenges demand dozens of mutually beneficial research and development achievements, ranging from battery improvement, to new power sources, to biotech and carbon-negative technologies. Highly effective and compact Roll-Out Solar Arrays will support the Lunar Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), capable of producing 60kW of power, and advancements in solar electric propulsion (e.g, via gridded ion NEXT-C thrusters) will permit deep space exploration.

Perhaps lessons applicable to Earth-based solar power – including in energy conversion or portability – can be learned from these capabilities. Astrobotic’s recently announced vertical solar panels, designed to avoid loss of power even at the lunar poles, may advance “adapted designs that increase efficiency of rooftop solar arrays” here on Earth.

An explosion of Moon-based research is focused on in situ energy creation, fuel cells, and especially hydrogen fuel.

NASA’s 2020 Tipping Point studies include pHMatter’s reversible, regenerative fuel cell for storing energy on the lunar surface, Teledyne’s 10,000 hour hydrogen electrical fuel cell, and Lockheed Martin and ULA’s demonstrations of cryogenic management of liquid hydrogen. All of these are likely to have implications for developing and managing the integration of hydrogen and other alternative fuel sources on Earth.

A new memorandum of understanding signed by NASA and the Department of Energy impels both agencies to push forward nuclear propulsion for deep space exploration. Progress in nuclear safety and harnessing this power for new uses would ease the shift from fossil fuels as well.

Meanwhile, improvements in battery technology – such as in rechargeable batteries and those chargeable at low temperatures developed by JPL, or those leveraging organic polymers to function more highly in the cold of space – could have significant impacts on efforts to help the grid store and distribute renewable energy or improve electric vehicle performance.

GPS, already so critical for all aspects of the global economy and national security, is profoundly useful for providing timing to the power grid, and the deepening integration of renewable energy sources will make PNT even more critical.

Additionally, GPS supports location systems for disaster relief and monitoring, more efficient land use via highly accurate positioning for crops, and more.

Also in the agricultural realm, space-based research in crop production is focused on improving yields compared to resources spent and space used, lessons which could be applied to achieve more efficient farming on Earth.

Plants’ carbon-negative benefits in a highly regulated International Space Station environment also provide a reminder of the need for those technologies on Earth. A start-up called Air Company has developed a carbon-negative approach to making rocket fuel, with the potential to directly improve the space industry’s footprint back on Earth.

As with so much done in space, the impact of technology developed there will be felt deeply back on Earth.

Back to Earth

Technological advancements in space with potential applications for reversing climate change must be paired with reforms in the Earth-bound space industry, and gaps remain in the partnership between those working on space and climate change.

While carbon-negative rocket fuel would help significantly, accelerating launch cadences in the coming years will contribute increasingly to water vapor, NOx (during both launch and reentry), and CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Launch vehicle development – and R&D and manufacturing writ large – are energy-intensive processes, so space companies can contribute to reversing climate change by reducing their own emissions.

Gaps also remain in the space community’s contribution to tackling climate change. On one hand, space-derived climate data will soon offer nearly ubiquitous coverage and multi-phenomenology pictures of climate processes. On the other, data availability, distribution, and fitness-for-purpose remains an issue for scientists and climate-focused companies alike.

NASA, remote sensing companies, and other actors, such as Earthrise Alliance, should work together to develop new use cases (such as carbon offset monitoring by SilviaTerra) for observation data and to connect those who could use that data for action to those sources.

Space industry and agencies can continue to leverage their increasingly commercial mentality for faster, less-burdensome developmental approaches.

This includes making climate-related research grants more accessible while working hand-in-hand with industry – including those outside traditional space circles – to cross-leverage technological development for both space and climate change.

It also involves NASA and NOAA clearing the way for commercial space companies to take the lead in innovation for new space and climate solutions, as the NGA and NRO have supported burgeoning space-based environmental data providers.

Finally, space agencies and the Biden Administration can continue to support a long-lasting, stable commitment to addressing climate change, through:

  • Ensuring climate initiatives are insulated from political winds
  • Expanding climate-focused teams at leading agencies (Gavin Schmidt’s new NASA Senior Climate Advisor role is a good first step) and ensuring they have a seat at the table; and
  • Strengthening inter-agency collaboration and defining scientific and regulatory roles among NASA, NOAA, the EPA, DOE, and others, for a truly whole-of-government approach to tackling the challenge.

Space has always been at the forefront of climate-saving technological developments – this expertise and global thinking is even more critical now, with so much to accomplish, and so much innovation to harness for both space and climate change.

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