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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Powering Earth from Space:
Can We Solve Our Energy Crisis Without Destroying the Environment?

There is immense potential for sustainable innovation in the ever-growing space economy — in ways that could bring the industry’s own impacts, and an infinite source of solar power, back down to Earth.

Ever since the Soviets launched the first satellite into outer space on October 4, 1957, shooting human-made apparatuses into the vast world far above our own has captured our collective imaginations; and that fascination only grew once humans began walking on the moon — by way of Apollo 11 in 1968, then Apollo 17 in 1972.

The space economy takes off

In September of 1982, Europe’s Arianespace became the first commercial launch-service provider; and in 1984, Ronald Reagan signed the Commercial Space Launch Act — mandating NASA to encourage the privatization of spaceflight and authorizing the Office of Commercial Space Transportation to regulate private spaceflight in the United States.

And the private space industry literally really took off in September of 2008, with the first successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket.

Since then, the launching of objects (satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecrafts, and space station flight elements) into our planet’s orbit and beyond has increased dramatically. According to Our World in Data, globally, 120 objects were launched into space in 2010; by 2023, that number jumped to 2,664 — an increase of 2,120 percent.

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The privatization of space travel has played a major role in this exponential jump (commercial launch activity increased 50 percent from 2022 to 2023), leading to what is now known as the space economy — with much of the traffic floating above the sky consisting of satellites, which are projected to increase an additional 700 percent by 2030.

Lots of energy, lots of smoke

The problem is, each time an object or a person is propelled into space, an enormous amount of energy must be used to fight the powerful force of gravity. Anyone who has seen a space launch knows the required force to blast off creates an enormous amount of smoke.

Overall, the space launch industry only produces a small percentage of all the C02 emitted by human activities. Nevertheless, as the industry grows, so will the amount of the gases it emits into the atmosphere.

According to Space.com, rockets launched into space emit 100 times more C02 per passenger than do commercial flights — so, imagine the environmental impact if the space industry becomes as mainstream as the airline industry.

Pollution from spacecraft also differs from more earthly sources such as factories, cars and even airplanes — since rockets release harmful gases from the ground all the way up to the outer layers of the atmosphere; and the higher the pollution, the longer it lingers in our planet’s air and skies.

The space industry also affects the environment in another unique way: Rockets launched into space eventually make their way back to Earth — burning up as they are pulled back in by the force of gravity, releasing additional pollutants that can also affect the atmosphere in ways scientists have yet to fully understand.

Solutions

There is no doubt the space industry is increasingly adding stress to a planet that is already overdosing on pollutants from human industrial activities; but that doesn’t mean it should be villainized.

For decades, space exploration has fostered a more profound understanding of climate science; and modern-day satellite communications can provide more insights on how to combat climate change, potentially providing us with clues on how to adapt to a warming world.

But the privatization of the industry has opened it up to an extraordinary amount of investment and unprecedented growth; and the increasing amount of contaminants it releases into the air at so many levels can no longer be ignored.

In 2022, British telecommunications company Inmarsat released its Space Sustainability Report; which encourages space industry leaders, governments and regulators to work together on a solution that is based on five principles — including ensuring a level playing field for operators on a global scale, the creation of a new regulatory framework that is strictly enforced, the detachment of sustainability from national security concerns, and the sharing of information about the location of satellites, without revealing their purpose.

Harvesting renewable energy from space

In January 2023, the California Institute of Technology's Space Solar Power Project was launched into orbit. The mission: Build solar farms in space to harvest solar power and send it to the Earth’s surface.

The mission was a success and proved our ability to capture energy from the sun with objects in outer space — a nearly infinite source, since solar energy obtained from space isn’t limited by factors such as nighttime, cloud cover or adverse weather events.

Building solar power plants in space would be enormously expensive; but as Andrew Wilson — a researcher at the Advanced Space Concepts Lab at Scotland’s University of Strathclydetold Space.com, once built, the space solar plants would pay for themselves much faster than any Earth-based renewable power-generating technology; and the space-based harvesters could potentially take in eight times more solar power than Earth-bound solar panels. NASA is currently developing technologies that will “indirectly benefit space-based solar power,” according to a recent report from the NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy — such solutions could offset much of the space industry’s climate-changing impacts on the Earth’s atmosphere.

There is immense potential for sustainable innovation in the ever-growing space economy — in ways that could not only clean up the industry’s own impacts, but benefit our planet and our human health for many years to come. We just need to invest the time, funds and energy to make it happen — an enormous opportunity for the public and private sectors to unite in the name of planetary health and human success both below and beyond the stratosphere.

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