Extraordinary Limits

Watching from Space to Save the Earth

Radar satellite data superimposed on Google Maps imagery indicates land use adjacent to a gas pipeline in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy ESA.

Radar satellite data superimposed on Google Maps imagery indicates land use adjacent to a gas pipeline in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy ESA.

From the stars, space agencies address environmental destruction on earth

The ways that space travel and technology support environmentalism occasionally make their way into the news. Recent reports of polar bears struggling to survive the loss of polar ice illustrate how satellite imagery and data collection are making it possible for environmentalists to better understand what’s happening on earth.

Space agencies around the world are conducting unique and collaborative research and earth observations with far-reaching effects. Overlap, as in the collection of weather data, provides multiple sources of information to create a large pool of data for scientists studying complicated issues such as climate change and sea-level rise.

Some of this is familiar: satellite weather maps or following the movement of a hurricane. But what goes on behind the scenes reveals how satellites and international collaboration on space exploration have become essential to environmentalism.

Fossil fuel pollution

Oil and gas support modern life but also threaten the environment. A pipeline rupture can devastate wildlife and threaten drinking water, crops, and air quality.

There are approximately two million km of gas and oil pipelines worldwide, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). In Europe, the agency reports, the public detects 37% of pipeline problems, with aerial surveys only identifying 17%. However, the Dutch company Orbital Eye has developed a service using satellite imagery to monitor pipelines. Radar images are combined with software to detect potential threats. They can also identify small ground movements that could impact structures.

“Our Integrated Applications Promotions program gives promising start-ups such as Orbital Eye the opportunity to develop and deploy new space-based services,” said Olivier Becu, spokesperson for ESA, in an online statement.

The Italian Space Agency (ASI) has a program to monitor marine oil pollution, Pilot Project PRIMI (Pilot marine pollution by hydrocarbons). The goal is to use “the latest technology and space … to enable the planning of measures for containment of damage and recovery.”

Using satellite imagery, PRIMI will detect an oil slick’s location and compile data on wind, waves and currents, and available information about nearby ships. This will provide data for environmental remediation.

Public/Private partnerships

Some initiatives are exclusively government-funded, but most space agencies work in partnership with universities, researchers, and businesses. While defraying some of the cost, these collaborations also expand the scope of research.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) program Stratos uses stratospheric balloons for near-space research. Created in 2011, Stratos is a collaborative effort with the French space program Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). Academics and business people have the opportunity to “test and validate new technologies and to perform scientific experiments at an altitude where only balloons can be operated.” Payload for Remote Sounding of the Atmosphere Using Balloon Limb Experiments (PARABLE) was the name given to four balloon payloads in 2015.

DEEP Inc. designed a set of cameras to capture a 360-degree view of the earth during a balloon’s 38-km ascent and flight. The company focuses on “exploring and defining the evolving language of cinematic virtual reality.” But the sub-orbital imagery the camera captured can have value for scientists.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) program RESPOND links with academic institutions to “carry out research and developmental projects which are of relevance to space and derive useful outputs of such R&D to support ISRO programs.” The agency provides financial support for a variety of initiatives, including “earth resources mapping/survey, meteorology and geodesy,” according to their website.

The Indian government benefits from this sponsorship by receiving information for management of natural resources.

We’re in this together

The Natural Resources Census project is a practical application of data from space. The goal is to develop a comprehensive mapping of India to identify natural resources including “land use/land cover, land degradation, wetlands, vegetation, snow and glaciers and geomorphology,” according to the project’s web page.

Country-specific environmental efforts provide justification for the expense of space programs, but they also contribute important information to the international community. The 2015 Australian Civil Space Coordination Committee (SCC) annual report illustrates how interrelated these activities are. Australia doesn’t have a government space agency, choosing instead to ensure “that the operating environment is conducive to innovation, combined with coordination and international cooperation” in order to strengthen the country’s space capabilities.

One government department involved in space research is the Bureau of Meteorology. The annual report says the bureau collaborates with agencies in Japan, China, Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

(Circular agricultural fields in Saudi Arabia’s desert. The image was captured by a European Space Agency satellite that supports the French SPOT and American Landsat missions. Image courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data 2015. Photo courtesy ESA.)

Well established collaboration on climate science creates a model for expanding the large volume of earth data collected via space. One such effort is starting in the field of biodiversity. A paper published by Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli of the Institute of Zoology and her colleagues explains how. Satellite remote sensing and conservation biology are in a position to benefit biodiversity.

In the era of “big data,” unprecedented levels of information about earth are available, due in part to space. This growing connection between space exploration and earth could have significant consequences for those working for environmental causes. © Margo Pierce

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