A defining moment in space exploration is the first image of Earthrise – watching Earth pass over the horizon – taken by an astronaut on Apollo 8 as he ventures on his historic journey to circle the moon. .
Since this photo from December 1968, Earth observation has rapidly advanced to the point that satellites orbiting the Earth can monitor forests, methane emissions, glaciers, sea level and many other parts of the climate.
The last decade in particular has been marked by rapid progress, with a massive increase in navigation, telecommunications and, above all, observation technologies. The data provided allows scientists, NGOs and private companies to gain insight into the current state of the Earth and help decision-makers shape climate policy.
Satellite data is vital to tackling the climate challenge, according to Patrick Child, deputy director general of the European Commission’s research and innovation department and co-chair of the Group on Earth Observation, a partnership of more than 100 governments national, university and research institutes.
“Earth observation and our work in space can help us develop effective responses to the impacts of climate change. This is a central objective of the European Green Deal, to ensure that the climate transition is tackled in a holistic way, including through mitigation and adaptation measures, ”said Child. at a conference on climate science from space, hosted by Portugal, which holds the rotating EU presidency for six months.
“Combined with other sources of data, for example on our health or metrological data, we are able to assess the planet and set priorities for our resources and our actions,” he said during the conference organized by the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, with the support of the European Commission.
The EU has three major programs served by satellites – Galileo, which focuses on navigation; the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) which provides navigation for air, sea and land users; and Copernicus, a network of dedicated satellites collecting data on the atmosphere, land, sea, climate change, security and emergency management.
Most Copernicus data is publicly available and has great potential for both businesses and those helping to fight climate change.
For example, a company called Solcast can provide forecast data to help solar farm operators using data from satellites from the EU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US science agency that monitors the climate and weather.
Observations can also help monitor and improve preparedness for natural disasters. “Forest fire monitoring and forest fire risk forecasting are two examples of how spacing-based monitoring contributes to our preparedness and response to climate-related disturbances. The frequency and severity of extreme weather events will only increase, increasing the need for real-time observational data, ”Child said.
Data can also help explain natural disasters. Child brought up the example of flooding in a remote Himalayan region last February, where analysis of Copernicus data found the cause was a landslide, but the main cause was receding permafrost.
Combine space and digital technology
Space technology has developed rapidly from those first tentative steps in the mid-20th century that led to the first image of Earthrise. Observation from space can now use digital technology to combat climate change, for example by creating ‘digital twins’ of the Earth to help with adaptation and preparedness.
But it requires hardening data processing, including the creation of advanced algorithms to produce information useful to scientists and private companies, said Massimo Comparini, deputy general manager of Thales Alenia Space, an aerospace manufacturer specializing in the industry. spatial.
“We don’t have a planet B. We have to meet the challenges to build a sustainable planet, and we have to use the best of our technologies available today,” he said.
The last few years have also seen a significant drop in the price of satellites and launch equipment. This means the arrival of smaller and cheaper satellites, which increases the amount of data collected.
But while more data is useful for scientists, there is also growing concern that Earth’s orbit will become congested.
Carla Filotico, managing partner of consulting firm SpaceTec Partners, called for a circular economy in space technologies, including the recovery of materials from disused satellites.
“We have already talked about the new space, the new constellations emerging with thousands and thousands of satellites put into orbit, so there is clearly a need to clean up space,” she added.
Governance and access to data are also issues that still weigh on the sector. Until now, space was considered a public good, but there is now increasing privatization on the ground.
“One of the things we need to be aware of is how to harness the benefits of this low-cost rate of innovation and the ubiquity it offers,” said Azeem Azhar, founder of Exponential View, a newsletter on the future.
This requires a coordinated way of managing space management at the international level, including clearing up the debris that clutters Earth’s orbit.
“We need to have some form of common governance, rather than first-come, first-served governance in a particularly low earth orbit but also further afield,” Azhar said, adding that the privatized side can bring costs down.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]