How outer space can help us fight climate change

space
4 mins
12 Sep 2022
How outer space can help us fight climate change

From celestial solar panels to the surprise impact of shifting a planet's orbit, here’s how looking to the stars could secure our future

words Megan Wallace

If you’ve watched the news at any point of recent, you’ll know that it’s become impossible to ignore the ongoing effects of climate change. Across the world this summer there have been devastating floods in Pakistan, placing one third of the country under water and unprecedented heatwaves across Europe leading to severe droughts.

We’ve also witnessed a recent uptick in protest and an invigorated push for climate justice – from the rallies for Pakistan, to Animal Rebellion’s pursuit of dairy farming to Just Stop Oil shutting down the motorways. The situation is, admittedly, getting bleaker and bleaker by the day and it's easy to surrender to eco-anxiety or defeatism but there could be hope on the way — and this time, it’s from a very unexpected source. Specifically, harnessing the untapped potential of outer space.

Rather than suggest we flee our planet and set up shop elsewhere in the solar system, like Mars or even the moon, recent studies have pointed to the potential of space to solve the crisis we are facing here on Earth. Want to learn more? Keep on reading…

Space-based solar panels

A recent study prepared by Frazer-Nash Consultancy and London School of Economics for the European Space Agency has explored the role that space-based solar panels could play in helping Europe reach net zero emissions.

The research argues that developing space-based solar power would allow for gas, oil and coal facilities in Europe to be decommissioned and for a lesser reliance on imported fossil fuel. This report also calls for 54 solar satellites to be created by 2050 and makes the case that the energy programme would generate over 180 billion euros in benefits.

However, this technology, while great in theory has not yet been developed and would require billions of euros to fund research to create a prototype and billions of euros to create each individual solar satellite after that point.

The concept of space-based solar revolves around using extremely large satellites orbiting the sun to collect microwaves from the sun’s rays in space and beam it back to Earth using wireless power transmission and then convert that into electricity by using a large rectenna (an instrument used to turn microwaves into an electric charge).

Shifting Jupiter’s orbit

At it stands, Earth is currently the only planet in our solar system which is believed to be habitable to humans. And while, obviously, the solar system doesn’t revolve around us, Earth might not even be reaching its full potential for the human population’s needs.

But, according to a new study, if Jupiter’s orbit was to change ever-so-slightly, then Earth’s temperature would change, too. Specifically, if Jupiter’s orbit was stretched to become more elliptical and less circular it would have a knock-on gravitational effect on the rest of the solar system and, for us, would bring parts of our planet into closer contact with the sun — causing them to heat up and making previously uninhabitable areas possible to live in.

Obviously, there are plenty of considerations to think of when it comes to changing the UK’s climate in any way — but the scientists behind this research are optimistic about what this could mean.

"If Jupiter's position remained the same, but the shape of its orbit changed, it could actually increase this planet's habitability," says planetary scientist Pam Vervoort of the University of California, Riverside, who worked on the study.

"Many are convinced that Earth is the epitome of a habitable planet and that any change in Jupiter's orbit, being the massive planet it is, could only be bad for Earth. We show that both assumptions are wrong."

Satellites, satellites, satellites!

Space technology has led to the creation of satellites which allow us to monitor and track changes to the Earth’s temperature, weather and atmosphere, allowing us to make significant advances in predicting weather events and conduct research into how our planet’s climate is changing.

Here in the UK, scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space centre in Oxfordshire have developed instruments which are fitted onto European Space Agency satellites to measure sea and land temperatures with previously unseen accuracy. Ultimately, with the increased information that satellite monitoring gives us, we are able to make more informed choices and decisions in the collective fight against climate change.

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