The Potential of Space Technologies to Enable a Sustainable Future

space technologies and sustainability

When we think about the value of the space travel industry, we have to think beyond space missions. One of the most important and burgeoning activities of the space travel industry – that is often underappreciated – is the development of green technologies that could revolutionise many industries on Earth, including energy, food, and materials.

When we think of the budget of NASA, we need to broaden our perspective beyond missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond. These missions are of course invaluable in terms of the progress of humankind, but space travel’s impact on the world is more tangible as well. After all, for every dollar spent on NASA, more than $8 is added to the US economy, with much of the economic contributions of the space travel industry being related to innovative technologies that have real-world applications (we can thank NASA for GPS, weather satellites, and dialysis machines).

In this article, I would like to outline some fascinating technologies being developed by the space travel industry that will help to make Earth more sustainable. These ‘sustainable technologies’ involve a more valuable use of natural resources and have a reduced ecological impact. There is a general belief and hope that novel technologies will transform unsustainable industries into sustainable ones, saving us from the environmental problems associated with overpopulation, resource depletion, and ecological destruction; however, this is a risky hope to hold onto, and technology will likely be one – albeit a potentially critical – component of achieving sustainable development, that is, making Earth a sustainable home for both the existing global population and future generations.

Still, many space technologies hold a lot of promise for improving destructive and resource-intensive industries. Let’s explore a few of the current issues in these industries and how certain space technologies could serve to make a valuable difference.

Harnessing Solar Energy in Space

On planet Earth, we are making great strides when it comes to harnessing renewable energy in order to meet our sustainability needs. For example, in 2016, nearly all of Costa Rica’s electricity was produced from renewable sources; and in 2017, Scotland set a renewable energy record as wind power supplied 118% of the country’s electricity. These are impressive and promising achievements.

However, even if renewable energy is far better for the environment and our health than fossil fuels – which are the primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – this doesn’t mean that renewable energy is sustainable. What we really need is truly sustainable renewable energy. And space could provide us with exactly this.

According to The Space Review, we need to harness the solar energy available in space because countries like the US don’t have “sufficient suitable land to utilise terrestrial renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.” Indeed, renewable energy technologies, such as solar farms, require enormous amounts of land. One side-effect of this land use is that it will put solar farms in competition with the agricultural industry. What we need is renewable energy that can be sourced without conflicting with the uses of land that are essential to our lives.

So it may not be the renewable energy industry that becomes key to our continued survival, but the establishment and development of the space solar industry. The National Space Society explains how space solar would work: “Space Solar Power gathers energy from sunlight in space and transmits it wirelessly to earth.”

In a nutshell, meeting our energy needs with space solar power would be the ultimate sustainability solution because it requires no land use. A rapidly rising global population is putting immense pressure on the land, since the 83 million extra people appearing on the planet every year need somewhere to live, a place to work and arable land to provide them with food. We really can’t afford to put further pressure on the land by solely meeting our energy needs with renewable energy. Perhaps these technologies can be part of a diverse solution, but they are certainly no silver bullet.

But how exactly are we meant to transmit all of that solar energy from space back to Earth? Well, scientists in Japan have already taken crucial steps in making this technology a reality.

Mitsubishi have successfully tested a system that collects solar power from orbit and transmits it back to Earth. And Yasuyuki Fukumuro, from JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said that although developing this technology is expensive, it will be well worth the rewards, since “power can be generated so long as the sun is there”. (The sun won’t die for another 5 billion years.)

While we still have potentially 5 billion years of Earth-bound existence left, we should do whatever we can to survive. When we look at the benefits of space solar energy, it seems to trump all other energy sources in terms of sustainability. The National Space Society highlights:

“The solar energy available in space is literally billions of times greater than we use today. The lifetime of the sun is an estimated 4-5 billion years, making space solar power a truly long-term energy solution. As Earth receives only one part in 2.3 billion of the sun’s output, space solar power is by far the largest potential energy source available, dwarfing all others combined.”

Growing Cotton in Space 

In 2017, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) organised a competition called the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge. As part of this challenge, researchers submitted their ideas on how to grow cotton in the microgravity environment of the International Space Stations (ISS). The aim of the competition was to figure out how to efficiently grow cotton in space so that it can be grown more efficiently on Earth, and, in turn, more sustainably. 

The way that we grow cotton on Earth isn’t very sustainable. It is an extremely water-intensive crop. As the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states on their website: “It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.”

We also know that India, Pakistan, and West Africa are responsible for a major proportion of the global population of cotton, which is concerning since these countries often suffer from serious drought. On the one hand, production of this crop sustains the livelihoods of people in developing countries, but on the other hand, it is leaving them without a precious resource that they desperately need. As an article in The Guardian points out:

The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water.

Cotton production isn’t just unsustainable in terms of its water usage. It also impacts the environment through its intensive use of harmful agrochemicals. As WWF highlights:

2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. Unsafe use of agricultural chemicals has severe health impacts on workers in the field and on ecosystems that receive excess doses that run-off from farms.

There has already been a push to make cotton more sustainable. For example, the Better Cotton Initiative, which has support from WWF, has worked with 43,000 cotton farmers in Pakistan so that they can grow the crop using less water. Nevertheless, as promising as this initiative is, all of the major producers of cotton – especially countries like India, which suffer from drought – need to be using less water, as well as fewer pesticides. 

Researchers who submitted their ideas for the Cotton Sustainability Challenge were able to demonstrate new ways to significantly reduce water use and minimise the use of agricultural chemicals. This is important as around 90 countries produce an estimated 20 million tons of cotton every year. It is a crop that we depend upon. It makes up nearly half the fibre used to make clothes and textiles worldwide. So if we’re not willing to give up cotton, then we need to drastically change how it is made. This thirsty crop has already been responsible for the drying up of the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia. In addition, the use of pesticides has poisoned both farmland and people, resulting in a massive increase in the number of people suffering from throat cancers and respiratory diseases. 

Recycling Water 

The water filtration and collection process on the ISS is crucial to keeping astronauts healthy and hydrated. However, the current system is complicated and fragile. If just one thing goes wrong or breaks, then the water supply could become contaminated, or – even worse – the entire system could fail.

This is why NASA established the Capillary Structures for Exploration Life Support investigation, which hopes to create a simpler way of recycling water on board the spacecraft. The new evaporation system – consisting of geometric shapes in a variety of sizes that are 3D-printed and clip into place – could potentially allow for the full recovery of water found in astronauts’ urine. Lighter and more efficient systems like this will be necessary for the mission to Mars.

This is yet another example of tech innovations in the space exploration industry offering Earth-bound applications. The Capillary Structures system will have implications for creating better filtration and purification systems in general. Given that water is a precious and finite resource, the key to sustainability will lie in more efficient uses of it. NASA researchers have also developed water recycling systems, now used on the ISS, that converts wastewater into potable water (recycled water on the ISS that originates from urine is actually cleaner than the water we would normally drink). These water purification systems can have several Earth applications, including supporting drought-stricken areas and contributing to biofuels. Dr Enid Contes, a NASA scientist working in the Life Support division, has said:

Water recycling is helping us achieve planetary sustainability in many ways. We tend to forget that sources of potable water on our planet is limited, less than 2% of the water on our planet is fresh water, including glaciers and polar ice caps. The goal is to substitute recycled water where potable water is unnecessary. For example, we can use recycled water to recharge underground aquifers, irrigate landscapes and crops, and flush toilets. By using recycled water more frequently we can sustain the limited supply of potable water for drinking and cooking.

These are just a few of the very many examples of space technologies that have the potential to benefit sustainable development. What these examples show is that funding for the space travel sector should not be undervalued. NASA’s budget for the year 2021 is $25.2bn, which is a 12% increase compared to 2020. That’s promising. But when you contrast this with the US military budget for 2021 ($706bn), you can see where the priorities lie. Only one of these industries – and strong investment in it – is going to get us closer to a sustainable future.

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