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Outside Looking In: Satellites in the Era of Climate Change

February 5, 2021 - Emma Brady

Satellites and space stations provide many important services, but they are incredibly expensive. Is the cost of advancing space technologies justified when considering the growing global ecological crisis? How can we use satellites to help us in the age of climate change?

There are currently over 2 200 active satellites orbiting Earth. Some of these satellites are controlled by governments or governing bodies, such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). However, most of them are controlled by private companies.

One of the leading private companies, SpaceX, has an ambitious new project called Starlink. Starlink aims to launch over 12 000 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in the next 8 years to create a global communications network capable of high-speed broadband internet connections. Reports suggest that Starlink will require as many as 42 000 satellites in total. Starlink claims to be a ‘clean’ satellite constellation, as the LEO satellites will de-orbit Earth when their lifespan is complete, thereby creating space for new satellites. However, it is uncertain how clean the production and launching of thousands of satellites will actually be.  

Satellite technology has a wide range of uses. It was estimated that in 2019, the global satellite industry was worth USD$360 billion. Besides the economic value, satellites play an important role in understanding climate change.  

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The Role of Satellites in Climate Change

Satellites allow scientists to use remote sensing to monitor climate and environmental changes, as they can monitor greenhouse gases and temperature changes. Satellites monitor changing ocean temperatures, the size of glaciers and sea ice, ocean currents and rising sea levels. Satellites provide valuable observations on how widespread wildfires are, the damage they have caused and the distance that the smoke has travelled. NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite tracks changing precipitation patterns and flooding, while ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite allows for spatial mapping of biodiversity and biomass, agricultural impacts, soil degradation, forestry cover and deforestation. All of this information is incredibly important in efforts to understand and predict the effects of climate change.

Satellites can also be used as part of an early warning system for natural disasters and provide important information during rescue efforts.

The Cost of Satellites

Satellites are extremely expensive. Production, engineering and software costs are often upward of US$100 million per satellite. Satellites require many different elements and raw metals, but the mining of these is damaging the environment. Particles released during launches interact in the stratosphere and have a significant impact on ozone depletion. Ironically, satellite imaging is the best tool we have to understand the effects of space programs’ launch emissions on the atmosphere. 

Space debris is also becoming a problem. The ESA estimates that there are 900 000 objects of over 1cm in size orbiting Earth, and around 5 400 of these are larger than 1m (including active satellites). Space debris can be anything from bolts, paint chips and instrument parts, to entire defunct satellites. Any object 10cm in size or larger can cause significant damage to spacecraft as the objects are travelling at high speeds. 

Satellites are incredibly important in understanding and combating climate change. However, there are downsides associated with satellites. The effects of just the Starlink program alone will be vast and will be felt well into the future. When considering the climate crisis, it is debatable how necessary a slightly higher coverage and faster internet speed really is.