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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 48 | Jan 23, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Here at The Orbital Index, we think there are zero issues more important than the changing climate of our planet. We still believe in the bygone preamble to NASA's mission statement from the early 2000s: “to understand and protect our home planet.” And, as we begin the 2020s, we hope this special ‘Climate Mode’ issue inspires you to grapple with the problem that will define this decade and find ways that you can get involved.

Climate Science is the child of space exploration. Space gives us a unifying view of our planet, driving home its uniqueness and fragility. The early study of Venus and its immense greenhouse effect led us to look more closely at our own atmosphere. Satellite observation of Earth has given us decades of images of glaciers (fewer of them), fires (more of them), and clouds (more swirly ones). More recently, we've been able to measure temperatures, atmospheric composition, plants glowing, and global sea levels. Despite the politically influenced shortening of their mission statement in 2006, NASA still invests in climate science and is the most outspoken US agency regarding the crisis. The agency just released NASA Climate 2020, an overview of the last decade of climate science and their plans for the future (a portion of the site is also dedicated to climate, space, and kids). On orbit, the ISS is a microcosm of many closed climate and cultural systems, life supporting as well as societal, and often sheds light on the larger closed systems of the planet that we call home. Space-based systems are critical for measurement and responsibility attribution—allowing us to measure emissions and observe changes in a way that’s impossible from the ground. ESA & NASA are working together to launch a dedicated satellite to track sea level rise, while systems for accurate orbital CO2 emission tracking are being built by ESA, Canada, NASA, and others. (Related: How a New Wave of Orbiting Sentinels Is Changing Climate Science.)

The hottest decade (so far). NASA and NOAA confirm: the 2010s were the hottest decade ever, with July being the warmest month in recorded history and oceans that are now closer to bath-water temps than we’ve ever seen before (complete data available here). Climate change is now detectable from any single day of weather at global scale, and we’ve validated that our models have been predicting it correctly from all the way back to the 1970s. Keeping warming below the Paris agreement’s target of 1.5° C is looking implausible, with 3° C looking far more likely. Most people have a hard time internalizing what a world 3° warmer looks like. It’s not pretty: 300 million displaced by sea level rise, many regions becoming effectively uninhabitable due to wet bulb temperatures above survivability without air conditioning, shortages in food supplies, storms, year-long droughts, a total collapse of ocean reef ecosystems, and massive fires. Beyond 3°, it’s far worse, and we’re on track for at least 4° if we don’t get our act together—so let’s do that.

Tracking methane from space. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (~84x the warming of CO2 for 20 years after emission), responsible for about 25% of anthropogenic warming, is underreported, and tends to come from point sources. Methane concentrations have risen 2.5x from pre-industrial levels of 722 ppb to 1858 ppb in 2019, the highest value in at least 800,000 years (pdf). A new study using data from TROPOMI, the first satellite-based sensor for continuous methane point source monitoring, found a huge leak at an Exxon Mobil gas well in Ohio, suggesting that such leaks are widespread. More methane monitoring efforts include EDF’s MethaneSAT, a network of microsats from Bluefield, a California and Planet partnership, and many others. Unlike CO2, which will stay in the atmosphere for centuries, methane is reasonably short-lived, giving us an opportunity to see the effects of reductions within decades. C.f. “Methane and climate: 10 things you should know” for an excellent summary.

Tackling climate change with space-based imagery. The availability of affordable, up-to-date imagery, combined with new computer vision techniques (e.g., GPUs), is enabling better observation and reaction. Spacept is inspecting power lines from orbit, such as those that started the Camp Fire in California last year, and Global Forest Watch is using satellite imagery to monitor illegal deforestation and burning. (Tropical forest management is #5 on Drawdown’s list of weighted global warming solutions.) Want to get involved? You could teach yourself computer vision techniques on imagery of the Amazon and then apply those techniques to data from NASA, ESA, Planet (free for students & researchers), and others. AWS and Google Cloud have dedicated products for processing Earth imagery (and offer limited free plans).

Watching Australia burn. Space agencies around the world have been watching the tragic record-breaking bush fires in Australia this year. Smoke is visible in data from NASA’s Aqua and CALIPSO satellites, which also caught pyrocumulonimbus storms, lower-tropospheric carbon monoxide shows up in Copernicus data, and fire scars are seen covering Kangaroo Island in Terra satellite imagery. Australia is ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate action and is the world’s largest exporter of oil and gas. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that after record-breaking temperatures, and literally being on fire, it’s largely ignoring the problem. As is happening in the Amazon and Arctic, climate change feeds on itself: the Australian wildfires have already pumped out more emissions than 100 nations combined.

What can you do?

And a little good news. Microsoft pledged last week to become “carbon negative” by 2030 and to become so negative by 2050 as to draw down an amount of carbon equal to its total greenhouse gas emissions since the company’s founding in 1975. Microsoft also announced a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund focusing on carbon reduction and capture technologies. Also last week, BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, signalled that it would start moving its 7 trillion USD away from fossil fuels due to climate change risk.


P.S., Non-Climate News in Brief. SpaceX’s In-flight Abort Test went off spectacularly with emergency separation, mk3 parachute deployment, and recovery, plus a nice Falcon 9 explosion as hoped; you should vote on names for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (sadly, Rovey McRoveface didn't make the final list); SpinLaunch has raised another $35 million USD for their space catapult (we remain skeptical, but will hold off on the Theranos comparisons until some solid data is available); a Chinese rocket launched a test satellite for GalaxySpace, a Chinese company developing a space-based 5G network (which, along with terrestrial 5G networks, may degrade the quality of weather forecasts); NASA’s lunar-water-hunting VIPER rover went for a test drive; and, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who bought a trip from SpaceX to go around the Moon in 2023 with the #dearMoon project, is looking for a “single women aged 20 or over” to compete for his affection on a televised dating show and then to orbit the Moon with him—to put it lightly, we think it would be strongly preferable if the first woman to orbit the Moon wasn’t selected for television-dateability, but 20,000 have applied so far.