Clean Space for a Green Planet: Ecology for the Space Age

Clean Space for a Green Planet: Ecology for the Space Age

In 2015, the UCC General Synod passed a resolution on Responsible Stewardship of the Outer Space Environment. Through a regular series of articles, the UCC maintains its commitment to addressing the serious threats posed by space debris

In 1970, a nun working in Zambia named Sister Mary Jacunda wrote to Ernst Stuhlinger, the director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. She asked him how he could justify spending billions of dollars on spaceflight when so many children were starving on Earth.

Stuhlinger responded: “Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart.” 

The rocket scientist proceeded to articulate his conviction that in the future, Earth-observing satellites would play a critical role in solving such grave problems as poverty and hunger. He was right.

Here are some of the satellites and instruments we depend on today for monitoring climate change and mitigating the disproportionate impact of global warming on poverty-stricken communities.

The Aqua satellite’s Cloud and Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) measures reflected sunlight and thermal radiation emitted by Earth so that scientists can understand how our planet’s heat budget is changing over time.

Jason-3 uses its radar altimeter to provide researchers with invaluable information about global and regional changes in sea level and their implications for a warming world. 

Aura’s instruments, including its Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) and Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS), measure ozone, aerosols, and gases to help scientists analyze Earth’s atmosphere, including the impact of the Amazon rainforest on its chemical composition.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) onboard the Terra satellite, the flagship of NASA’s Earth-observing fleet, provides a global perspective on the relationship between climate change and agricultural production for policymakers trying to bolster agricultural efficiency and plan for potential famines.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment’s twin satellites (GRACE) measure gravity variations on land masses to provide policymakers with a detailed picture of vital fresh water reserves hidden beneath Earth’s surface.

Satellite technologies have become so ubiquitous that we take their indispensable benefits for granted. We need to understand that the regions of space inhabited by satellites cannot weather mistreatment any better than Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, or forests.

We tend to think of space as vast and even limitless but this is not the way spacecraft operators look at it. They use common engineering solutions based on orbital mechanics that lead to a clustering of satellites at certain altitudes conducive to particular missions. Many Earth-observing satellites, for example, orbit at altitudes between 435 and 560 miles above the Earth’s surface where their sensors have the best resolution and communication systems require less power.

Because of this clustering of satellites in what is called low Earth orbit, the resource system in space resembles a parking garage where the basic resource units are parking spaces and the number of spaces is limited. Physical crowding issues with cars and SUVs make it a challenge to manage a parking garage. It’s a similar situation in space where the basic resource units are orbital slots and the number of slots is limited.

In space, though, the situation is more complicated and dangerous.

Imagine what it would be like if you had to share your local parking garage not only with other drivers but with vehicles that had broken down in the garage decades ago and were never removed. This is the situation in space where active satellites must crowd into orbits with spent rockets and “zombie” satellites from old missions. Moreover, these junk vehicles whizz around at 17,500 miles per hour. Even a small piece of debris, such as a stray nut or bolt, can disable an active satellite.

There is growing concern among spacefaring nations that key orbits are becoming too congested for spacecraft to navigate. Cleaning up these orbits is not going to be easy and time is not on our side. We will need to achieve a series of technological and diplomatic breakthroughs if we are to avoid getting knocked back to the pre-satellite era of the 1950s.

One thing is clear: If we hope to succeed in fostering a green planet with healthy and sustainable communities, we also should advocate for a clean space environment where Earth-observing satellites can safely conduct their missions.

We need a new, holistic ecological perspective for the Space Age that transcends the artificial divide between the Earth and space environments. Global warming and space debris can be recognized as close siblings from such a vantage point. Both are spawned by the human tendency—wherever we extend our presence—to exploit and degrade nature rather than manage its resources responsibly. They should be addressed by our environmental justice ministries as kindred threats because to care for Earth without also caring for space will be self-defeating.

Rev. Robert Bachelder is Minister and President of the Worcester Area Mission Society, UCC in Massachusetts and author of the General Synod resolution on responsible stewardship of the outer space environment.

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