The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Vice President Kamala Harris has said she will make climate change a priority of the National Space Council, expected to hold its first meeting of the Biden Administration this fall. (credit: White House photo by Cameron Smith)

Space exploration and development is essential to fighting climate change

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The recently released Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents a worrying scientific consensus: climate change is happening, humans are causing it, even our best efforts cannot prevent negative effects, and reducing emissions now is essential to preventing catastrophic consequences. The Biden Administration recognizes the urgency of addressing this challenge. In continuing as head of the National Space Council, Vice President Kamala Harris has made climate one of her priorities for the interagency White House office. This prioritization rightly reflects the growing capabilities of the public and private space sectors to help our society understand, adapt, and mitigate climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, growing space activities can accelerate the clean energy transition to reduce emissions by catalyzing technological development of existing and new energy technologies.

Harnessing new space technologies and expanding our space activities is fundamentally motivated by the desire to help people on Earth. With foresight and targeted intervention, emerging space capabilities and industry can improve our climate outcomes. Taking advantage of falling costs for space access can enable more NASA missions to advance space and planetary science to improve our understanding of Earth’s climate and how it is changing. Space development can catalyze development of clean energy technologies through innovations like space nuclear technologies and space-based solar power. Enabling technologies, like Earth observation and GPS, can assist planners and policymakers in adaptation activities.

Space technologies and activities are foundational to climate science, which is an applied form of planetary science. Over the last two decades, space-based capabilities have substantially increased our understanding of how and where our planet is changing. Data from these capabilities were essential inputs to the Sixth Assessment Report, helping narrow estimates of climate sensitivity so we can better predict future climate outcomes. Further, space science missions and planetary exploration continue to strengthen our overall standing of planetary systems and the role of gases in the atmosphere. Continuing to improve our space-based capabilities and our general planetary science can help us further improve climate science.

Ultimately, reducing emissions as much as possible as fast as possible is needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. So called “conventional” space infrastructure like positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) can play a critical role in enabling new types of emissions mitigation on Earth. Identifying the quickest and most efficient transportation routes can reduce emissions from automobiles, airplanes, and shipping. Earth observation can help identify mitigation opportunities for everything from land use planning to emission reductions. Recently, lower costs for space access led to the Environmental Defense Fund funding a private mission called MethaneSAT to identify fugitive methane emissions from oil and natural gas production and other human emissions. Launching in 2022 and with a resolution beyond existing systems, this data can not only inform mitigation policy for known emitters, it will also identify previously unknown emissions sources.

Perhaps most importantly, growing space activities can accelerate the clean energy transition to reduce emissions by catalyzing technological development of existing and new energy technologies. The space industry was the first foothold for the use of solar photovoltaic panels, providing the early foundations for the solar industry juggernaut sweeping global energy markets. Next generation solar technologies with greater efficiencies than photovoltaics, like perovskite solar cells, can repeat this process by finding an early market in the mass-conscious space sector. Meanwhile, we are on the verge of a space nuclear power revolution as countries around the globe turn to fission reactors for surface power and propulsion. Based on terrestrial innovation like tri-structural isotropic particle (TRISO) and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuels, space markets can accelerate the development of next generation nuclear supply chains, reducing costs and ending the recent stagnation of our largest source of zero-carbon power.

When the National Space Council meets this fall, climate will be on their agenda.

Meanwhile, space-based solar power may finally be approaching the point of cost competitiveness, unlocking an effectively infinite baseload renewable energy source. However, while there are public and private efforts in the US and abroad, the US lacks a comprehensive strategy to develop and commercialize this technology, especially via the Department of Energy. A more exotic alternative to space-based solar, helium-3 mined on the Moon could power second generation fusion reactors in the latter half of the 21st century, finishing the job of global decarbonization.

Even with Herculean efforts to reduce emissions, the world will ultimately need to adapt to the effects of climate change. Emerging NewSpace activities, like ubiquitous Earth observation, can help societies adapt. In the Western US, satellite observations can assist in monitoring and understanding the extent and severity of wildfires . Understanding regional-scale crop yields and water conditions can assist planning for agriculture. Earth observation satellites can even monitor and identify illegal fishing, essential to fisheries management in light of carbon-driven ocean acidification.

When the National Space Council meets this fall, climate will be on their agenda. Recognizing the potential of the space sector to meet national climate goals, the National Space Council should:

  • Establish plans for accelerating space and planetary science missions to improve general and applied approaches to planetary climatology;
  • Identify gaps in near-Earth observational and related capabilities that public and private efforts can fill to improve climate science, mitigation, and adaptation (such as methane monitoring);
  • Plan a Space Policy Directive for the Department of Energy to establish plans for national leadership in space nuclear power, next generation solar cells, space-based solar power, and lunar helium-3; and
  • Articulate the role of improved space-related STEM education in building a diverse workforce for the nation’s future climate science and mitigation workforces.

Further, the National Space Council should consider inviting other agencies directly working on climate adaptation and mitigation, such as the Department of Interior or Environmental Protection Agency to present to the Council to inform interagency priorities and efforts.

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