Space exploration could be Earth’s saving grace | Science | In-depth science and technology reporting | DW
The first time German astronaut Alexander Gerst blasted off into space, he was shocked. He had seen satellite photos of Earth before, but they paled in comparison to reality.
“I [saw] Earth with my own eyes for the very first time and all of a sudden this huge, gigantic planet that I thought was infinite, maybe with infinite resources or things like that, appeared intimidatingly large to the light from the darkness of infinity. And that made me see the Earth differently.”
Gerst was part of International Space Station (ISS) Expeditions 40 and 41 from May to November 2014. He returned to space on Expeditions 56 and 57 in June 2018.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst
“It was revealing [for me] fly in space for the first time,” he said. “As geophysicists, we know exactly the diameter of the Earth, the thickness of the atmosphere. I thought I knew everything.”
Gerst, who spoke at the 14th European Space Conference last week, said space exploration can offer a solution to the climate crisis by stepping back and looking at the “problem from the outside”.
“We astronauts have to carry this view, this change of perspective [back] to earth.”
Space budget devoted to new technologies
While space exploration requires a considerable amount of money from the EU budget, Gerst says it is worth it.
The benefits of technologies developed to support space exploration are not limited to simply sustaining human life in space, he said.
The space experiment helps researchers “develop technologies that we can use on Earth, things that we need to save the planet,” Gerst said.
Gerst said he conducted experiments on the space station that studied how plant roots know which direction to grow. This question is the subject of much research in order to develop plants capable of growing their roots more quickly to find water deep in dry soil.
“It’s something that will be very helpful if climate change really changes a lot of areas that used to be green and are now dry,” he said.
European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Josef Aschbacher noted that more than half of climate parameters – such as sea surface temperature, melting glaciers, melting polar ice caps and sea level rise – are measured in space.
“Without satellites, we wouldn’t know the magnitude of climate change,” Aschbacher said, adding that without this information it would be difficult to make and implement decisions related to the climate crisis.
“We are witnesses of all this”
During a virtual interview with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen from space last week, German astronaut and materials scientist Matthias Maurer, who is currently on a six-month SpaceX science mission, noted the many details related to climate change observable from space.
Flying at an altitude of about 400 kilometers above the planet and circling the Earth 16 times a day, Maurer said he can see destroyed and burned forests, drought and lakes that once appeared on maps.
“We can also see that human mining is leaving a lot of scars on the surface of our planet,” he said.
Maurer said they are also able to observe natural events occurring in real time, such as the recent floods in Brazil or the eruption of the underwater volcano in Tonga.
He added that the Copernicus Earth observation fleet provides data that is important for politicians to act on.
Copernicus is the Earth observation program of the European Union. It offers information services based on satellite and non-spatial data.
Maurer launched the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft in November last year for a mission to advance scientific knowledge and demonstrate new technologies for future human and robotic exploration missions.
Lots of space junk
A frequently raised issue with space exploration is the debris it leaves floating in space.
There are fears that with more private companies vying to go to the moon, like billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, more trash is filling the atmosphere.
According to ESA’s January 2022 space waste update, some 30,600 pieces of debris are regularly tracked by space surveillance networks.
Maurer said his space station received a space debris collision warning just two weeks ago. Station planning teams on the ground had to calculate whether the debris had the potential to hit them.
“It shows us that there is a lot of debris here in space, and it is a very important subject, not only for the ISS because it puts us in danger, but also because of the satellites older than us. have.”
Maurer noted that measures must be taken to avoid future space debris. ESA has stated that by 2030 they want to have a net contribution to space debris. Maurer said that would mean not only taking steps to remove the massive pieces from space, but also reducing the introduction of new space particles.
Maurer and Gerst are both optimistic that discoveries from space exploration could help politicians and scientists find solutions to the climate crisis, using the famous words ‘there is no planet B’ .