The world faces critical challenges. Just this year we have seen blackouts in Texas caused by extreme cold (and now extreme heat); evidence of earlier bird migrations in North America; and studies showing that a third of heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 can be linked to human-caused global warming. Concerning developments such as these were one of the key reasons that climate change was a key topic at this year’s G7 Summit.
But there is hope, especially as leaders of government and industry come together to help protect our environmental resources and begin to limit the effects of climate change. This is happening today as space agencies and private companies actively monitor the Earth from space for additional signs of climate change, using a wide range of monitoring technologies — including multispectral imaging, radio altimeter measurements, artificial intelligence and much more.
Just last year, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) joined together to launch an advanced Earth-observation satellite, which monitors the sea surface height and coastline changes with an accuracy of up to 2.3 inches. Other plans include launching satellites to track methane leaks (since methane is responsible for about 25 percent of global warming) and monitoring logging roads in the world’s rain forests to provide an essential warning before mass deforestation occurs.
Scientists and industrialists have set their sights on outer space, not just for observing climate change but also for communications services, mining and space tourism. But there is a significant challenge. None of these efforts will be successful without a concerted effort to protect and care for space as a resource.
While space itself may be infinite, the usable space around the Earth is finite and growing increasingly crowded. Today there are estimated to be as many as 170 million man-made objects floating in space, the overwhelmingly majority of which is orbital debris serving no useful purpose. As the Kessler Syndrome posited, this creates a hazardous space environment, the danger of which increases dramatically on a daily basis, for unmanned and manned flight.
To address this critical issue, the United States and the global space powers must act now to create a binding regime that will ensure the long-term sustainability of space. This must include a space traffic management protocol that requires 1) all objects in space be tracked for situational awareness; 2) the creation of “rules of the road” for launching and de-orbiting space assets; and 3) technology flexible requirements for safely de-orbiting objects in a way that protects the precious space resource.
Failure to create a space sustainability regime not only puts at risk important climate change missions, but threatens property and, more importantly, life. Just a couple of months ago, astronauts on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) had to change into space suits because of the risk of collision to their space craft from a very small piece of orbital debris. Several weeks later, the ISS was damaged when it was hit directly by another small piece of orbital debris. We cannot risk our space environment and the benefits for areas such as addressing climate change by failing to address this problem.
We know the solution for a safe space environment and how to stop a catastrophic outcome. The U.S. government must step forward and empower a government agency to take the lead in crafting a holistic approach to space sustainability. Once this is done, the effort must be socialized globally. This requires the creation of an appropriate worldwide organization, with both government and non-government actors, to ensure that the effort to protect the long-term health of space is addressed globally.
We have the opportunity to utilize space to help solve the very complex problem of climate change on Earth. But if we don’t act now to create a binding approach to space sustainability, both on the federal level and in worldwide alignment, we will all lose not only access to the precious resource that is space, but also an important tool to protect invaluable resources here on Earth.
Jennifer Manner is senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Hughes Network Systems.