How does outer space reframe our definition of sustainability?

Sensemaking / How does outer space reframe our definition of sustainability?

Space offers a unique vantage of our home planet, where the distance sets a perspective that could reframe what we mean by sustainability.

By Dorothy Ng / 17 Nov 2016

An entire network of satellites in space is used to monitor changes in sea level rise, global temperatures, air pollution, and ice formations. The data gives evidence of how mankind’s activities are rapidly changing our climate in new and dangerous ways. It provides real-time feedback on our efforts in sustaining life in the goldilocks zone — where it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just the way we like it. The data informs us of how we must act for a sustainable future, and the urgency at which we must do so.

Image credit: NASA | NASA has more than a dozen Earth science spacecraft/instruments in orbit studying all aspects of the Earth system (oceans, land, atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere)

Besides surveying earth signs, some satellites act as watchdogs, keeping a vigilant eye for ships lost to illegal fishing and the trafficking of human slaves.Satellite image of the Silver Sea 2 that shows a transshipment with two slave fishing boats off the coast of Papua New Guinea | Image credit: CSM Projects, Courtesy of DigitalGlobe

While satellites send us data from above, could solar panels too beam us power from space? Not limited by the rotation of the earth toward and away from the sun, solar panels in space can bask in 24/7 of pure sunjuice. While the technology is still in the works and faces its fair share of challenges, space offers us the room to imagine new ways of generating renewable energy — key to stabilising and restoring the earth’s climate.

Space-based solar collection system | SPS-ALPHA concept and visualization (Courtesy of John C. Mankins)

In nature, no fallen leaf, body or tree is ever wasted. This is an art we have yet to master, as can be seen from our seas of marine plastic waste and atmospheres overladen with waste carbon dioxide. Wherever mankind has set foot we leave a trail of junk, even space is not spared.

More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. — NASA

Artist’s impression of space junk orbiting Earth | Image credit: European Space Agency / Rex Feat

Companies and projects like Astroscale and RemoveDebris by Surrey Space Centre are on a mission to clean up space junk with all sorts of gadgets up their sleeves, including… nets and harpoons. In a zone so large that it is named as ‘space’, where even the tiniest paint flecks traveling at high velocities can damage a spacecraft, how do we feel about our junk cast into orbit?

When waste is framed in new dimensions, we get the opportunity to rethink our old ways. As you can imagine, the tiniest piece of debris in space would take a colossally disproportionate effort to dispose. Before we venture into new spaces, before we create something, we first need to think of how it will be disposed, repurposed, recycled, from cradle to cradle.

Just as with space junk, our other space activities could have unintended consequences. There is the hypothesis that rogue astronaut corpses could spark life on other planets. Closer to home, asteroid mining costs an investment of $1 billion but offers profits estimated to be in the quintillions of dollars (1 followed by 18 zeros). Unsurprisingly asteroid mining for metals and minerals such as gold and platinum has drawn great interest, there is even a dashboard that tracks each asteroid for its composition, costs and rewards.

Image credit: Wired

With space solar and mining set in place, why not shift the entire heavy industry into space?

“I predict that in the next few hundred years, all heavy industry will move off planet. It will be just way more convenient to do it in space, where you have better access to resources, better access to 24/7 solar power,” said Jeff Bezos. “Solar power on Earth is not that great, because the planet shades us half the time. In space, you get solar power all the time. So there’ll be a lot of advantages to doing heavy manufacturing there, and Earth will end up zoned residential and light industry.” — Jeff Bezos via GeekWire

Have the consequences of asteroid mining and the industrialisation of space been thoroughly considered? Are we simply shifting the issue from overconsumption to further exploitation? At the dawn of renewed interest in space, we must now be thoughtful in how we design our next steps, to think not just of ourselves, the here and now, but the collective of today and the future. Why? Because the universe is a nicer place when we fill our neighborhood with kindness and grace.

There is so much that we seek when we look toward the skies. Beyond wealth and egos, we gravitate toward space as it captures our imagination like no other. What do we love more than solving fresh demanding challenges outside of our turfs? — Space poses us extreme design challenges the moment we try to send people up. A spaceship for instance holds limited resources to sustain an astronaut’s life. With this design constraint, NASA researched how exhaled carbon dioxide from astronauts could be a nutrient for making food, which the astronaut would then eat and exhale once again as carbon dioxide. This principle of recycling CO2 as a resource and earth as essentially a giant spaceship, has inspired biotech company Kiverdi which uses a special class of microbes that can make 10,000 times more food per land area.

Why does space inspire us so? Perhaps it is our getaway, like taking a shower where we are transported from the everyday to be gifted with aha moments. This is the space where we reframe problems, where paradigm shifts in sustainable design can burst into life. Today we live in the age of the second space race, toward Mars — popularised by larger than life figures like Elon Musk.

Musk said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.” — The Guardian

Whether we can truly live in space for generations on end is not yet clear, but is an area undergoing intensive research spanning everything from how to grow potatoes on Mars to whether it is possible to procreate. In a blur between science fiction and reality, it was recently announced that a new outer space nation, Asgardia, has formed and is now recruiting citizens.

An artist’s concept of an Asgardian space station | Image credit: Asgardia/James Vaughan

Here we are confronted with a fork in the road. When we talk about sustainability, are we referring to that of life on earth, or of the human species? Although there is room for overlap, both definitions lift us off in very different trajectories. Governments have the power to steer us in either direction and this is already happening with the newly elected US president Donald Trump, who is likely to focus more on human spaceflight and commercialization, rather than earth science and climate research. Are we ensuring the survival of humans at all cost and at the expense of everything around us? Is that ultimately a sustainable mindset or a deeply entrenched folly that we are capable of shaping our environments, independent of the interconnectedness of the universe?

All at once space captures our imagination to journey and discover, and to look back fondly upon earth as our fragile and only home (at least in the near future) that we must protect. On our fragile home planet what is most important to sustain? In the vastness of the universe, how will we choose to advance as a civilisation?

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

Great question – with one planet, sustainability of natural systems and sustainability of fulfilling human life are one and the same thing. But with more than one planet at our disposal this isn’t necessarily the case – which brings into sharp relief the values behind what we are doing, and challenges them. With more than one planet at our disposal, perhaps the current capitalist economic system is actually viable!?
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