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How space science can help tackle climate change
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Blog...How space science can help tackle climate change

How space science can help tackle climate change

Green News
Technology
planet Earth taken from outer space
In this article we’ll explore what space science is, and the exciting ways in which it is helping to advance our understanding of climate change.
Green News
2023-10-24T00:00:00.000Z
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planet Earth taken from outer space

Space science might not have an immediately obvious link to climate change, however, this field of scientific study is helping scientists to better understand the Earth’s climate, and even to combat the effects of global warming. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore what space science is, and the exciting ways in which it is helping to advance our understanding of climate change.

What do we mean by space science?

According to the Collins Dictionary, space science is defined as “any of the various science fields which relate to space flight or any phenomena occurring in space or on other planets. This would include for example such fields as Astronautics, Astrophysics, and Galactic Science.

Given that space exploration didn’t emerge until the late 1950’s, this field of study is still relatively new and only really blossomed in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s now expanded to become one of the most exciting, fast-paced, and prestigious fields of scientific research, encompassing a breadth of different disciplines including geology, meteorology, lunar, solar, and planetary science, astronomy, and astrophysics. 

But what many people may not realise is that space science is also an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change. Let’s explore how this field of science is helping to advance our understanding of our warming climate. 

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What can space science teach us about our own planet?

Although it might seem that neighbouring planets are a world away from our own, there’s a surprising amount to be learned from studying their atmospheres. Take Venus and Mars for example, Venus has a thick, toxic atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and shrouds of sulphuric acid, while Mars barely has any atmosphere to speak of at all, and yet by studying these two planets, scientists are able to learn a lot about the Earth’s changing climate. 

👉 To learn more about why the Earth’s climate is changing, head over to our article on global warming.

Why planet Earth is special 

Planet Earth - the rocky, terrestrial sphere that we call home - is the product of happy coincidence. It’s sheer luck that our planet is able to support life - had we been just a little bit closer, or a little bit further away from the Sun, life would never have been able to flourish. 

👉 But it’s not just our position in the solar system that has enabled organisms to form and evolve. An intricate combination of factors primed Earth for its future as a life-giving planet.

The Earth’s atmosphere is a product of a complex interplay between the atmosphere, the oceans, and its rocky mantle. Not many people realise that the Earth’s tectonic plate system played a significant role in the formation of breathable air. By spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere these moving plates acted as a global thermostat, replenishing the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Earth’s oceans have also played a crucial role in creating a hospitable planet by working to balance the excess heat and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. It’s also thought that this is where life on Earth first spawned. When atmospheric carbon dioxide combines with water, it forms what is known as carbonic acid (something that can actually dissolve rocks!). When rain falls, bringing this carbonic acid with it, it is cycled back into the ocean floor. This is where life on Earth first began. Oceanic cyanobacteria were able to use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, creating an atmosphere that would support a whole variety of different life forms.

Earth depends on this complex interplay between its mantle, oceans and atmosphere in order to sustain life.

However, human activity - namely the burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - is irreversibly changing the Earth’s climate. Carbon emissions are increasing global temperatures resulting in destructive climate events and altering our weather patterns.

👉 To learn more about the devastating impacts of climate change why not take a look at our article on the IPCC’s most recent climate report, outlining the impacts of climate change. 

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Lessons from Venus and Mars

Venus 

Venus is often referred to as Earth’s “evil twin” due to the fact that they are around the same size. But where Earth’s atmosphere provides the perfect conditions for life to flourish, nothing can survive on Venus thanks to its thick noxious atmosphere and 470 degree celsius surface temperature. 

But Venus wasn’t always this way, in fact, scientists believe that at one point in time, Venus may have had similar surface temperatures to those found on Earth and even featured oceans on its surface. However, this changed less than a billion years ago when the atmosphere began to trap too much heat, turning the planet's oceans into steam and causing all of the water on the planet to completely evaporate. 

👉 Some scientists believe that the drastic change in the atmosphere can be attributed to an escalating greenhouse gas effect, triggered by a period of intense volcanic activity releasing unprecedented volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

It is this drastic change in the atmosphere that is often used as a warning for what could happen if greenhouse gases in our own atmosphere are allowed to continue to rise unabated. 

Another useful learning that can be garnered from the study of Venus’ atmosphere comes from the data collected from VEX. In 2005, scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Venus Express (VEX) - the ESA’s first Venus exploration mission. The orbiter reached Venus in 2006, and thanks to the scientific instruments on board, it was able to continuously transmit invaluable data back to Earth, allowing us to gather information about the planet and its atmosphere. 

One of the most unexpected learnings stems from the measurements of the planet's sulphur dioxide levels. It was previously thought that at higher altitudes sulphur dioxide was destroyed by solar radiation, however, this was found not to be the case. In fact, evaporating droplets containing sulphuric acid released the gaseous acid into the atmosphere.

This was an invaluable learning as it had previously been proposed that sulphur dioxide could be injected into the Earth’s atmosphere as a means of mitigating the effects of global warming. This proposal stemmed from the observation that the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines created small droplets of sulphuric acid which formed a layer in the atmosphere (at around 20 km from the Earth’s surface), cooling the planet globally by 0.5 degrees celsius for several years. 

👉 The data provided by the Venus Express shows us that this is probably not a viable solution since the protective haze that initially forms and reflects the sun's rays back into space is eventually converted back into sulphuric acid, allowing the rays to reach the Earth, and also causing acid rain.

Mars

Mars’ atmosphere is almost the complete opposite of that of Venus. In fact, it's said to barely have any atmosphere at all, with a total atmospheric volume of less than 1% of that of Earth. Yet, it too is able to provide invaluable learning opportunities that can help us understand changes to our planet’s atmosphere. 

Even though it’s believed that Mars would have started out with a much denser atmosphere, its smaller mass, lower gravity, and higher temperatures allowed gas molecules to escape, decreasing the planet’s atmosphere over time. As the atmosphere decreased Mars’ surface water moved underground or became trapped in polar ice caps.

These days the atmosphere on Mars is predominantly made of carbon dioxide. However, with much more endurable surface temperatures than Venus (ranging from -55 to +27 degrees celsius) spacecraft are able to access the planet’s actual surface, allowing scientists to gather much more detailed information about the planet and its atmosphere. 

The Trace Gas Orbiter (a joint effort between the ESA and the Russian Roscosmos agency) began to orbit Mars back in 2017, with the goal of carrying out an inventory of the planet’s atmosphere. Of particular interest is the findings collected regarding methane. 

On Earth, methane is produced as a byproduct of natural, geologica,l and biological processes. Previous scientific vehicles that have explored Mars and its atmosphere picked up traces of this gas, however the Trace Gas Orbiter has so far failed to detect its presence. Scientists are keen to discover why this is the case and whether there is something that is breaking down methane quicker than expected.

👉 It’s hoped that NASA’s rover might be able to shed some light on the mystery and potentially provide invaluable information that allows us to understand our own planet’s atmosphere better, perhaps even providing learnings allowing us to reduce man-made methane emissions. 

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Invaluable learnings

By studying the unique atmospheres of the Earth’s sister planets, we are able to better understand the complexities of the gases that feature in our own atmosphere.

The drastic changes in conditions that these planets have endured will also help us to better understand climatic changes on our own planet. The observations serve as a reminder that climate stability is not something to be taken for granted and that maintaining a healthy atmosphere is essential for continued existence on planet Earth.

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Earth observation satellites

We’ve already touched on the invaluable data that is captured by observation satellites that are orbiting our celestial neighbours, and this same technology is currently being used to assess and track our own planet’s climate. In fact, NASA and the European Space Agency have over 150 satellites currently in orbit above Earth.

👉 This vast network of satellites orbiting the Earth is able to provide constant data and analysis of climate change across the entire globe - including remote regions that can be difficult for scientists to access. Let’s take a closer look at some of the invaluable research that these satellites are carrying out: 

  • Area observation - a mix of geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites allows scientists to collect constant data, encompassing the entirety of the planet on a daily basis. 
  • Unobtrusive data collection - satellites allow data to be collected without any issues regarding national sovereignty. 
  • Rapid data collection - data can be quickly downloaded and accessed. This is invaluable when it comes to implementing early weather warning systems and forecasting. 
  • Data continuity - satellites have an average lifespan ranging from a few years to a decade, however, data needs to be collected over longer periods (30 years or more) in order for scientists to be able to identify climate system variability. To overcome this satellites carry sensors relating to earlier missions to facilitate long-term data collection. Referred to as Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) these records provide invaluable evidence of the changing climate, something that is crucial for understanding and addressing climate change. 
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Satellite measurements and observations

Satellites have been used to record atmospheric data since 1969 when NASA’s NIMBUS III satellite was launched to track atmospheric temperatures. However, today's satellites are much more sophisticated and can provide a whole range of climate information.  

The practical applications of such technology are not just useful for understanding and tracking climatic changes, but can also help us combat climate change in new and novel ways. 

For example, the near real-time observations of satellites allow scientists to track toxic smoke, carbon monoxide, methane, and methanol released by forest fires. This information not only assists the development of more accurate modelling which can help teams to predict and respond to wildfires, but also helps to provide firefighters with invaluable, and perhaps life-saving real-time information, allowing them to anticipate the development of live fires, and prevent their spread.

Another example of how data collected from Earth observation satellites can be put to good use is its use in forestry (something that is very useful in the fight against climate change thanks to the ability of trees to soak up excess carbon dioxide). Satellite data is able to determine the health of forests and different tree species, helping forestry services to better plan what types of trees to plant, and to identify when forests show signs of disease, therefore requiring attention.  

These are just a couple of examples of the different applications of observation satellites in the fight against climate change. What’s more is that as this technology advances, the data collection capabilities will only increase, providing increasingly sophisticated climate insights, and helping us to better understand and respond to climate change.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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