Minimize Space for a Green Future

Space for a Green Future

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November 2021: The climate crisis is the most urgent challenge faced by humankind – affecting every region, continent, and ocean on Earth. Space has an untapped potential to make a difference in tackling the threats and challenges faced by humanity. Satellites watch over Earth continuously, helping us to monitor, understand, model, predict and act on climate change and its related challenges. 1)

Figure 1: As part of one of the three 'Accelerators' that will drive Europe’s increased use of space, the Space for a Green Future Accelerator will help Europe act to mitigate climate change. It will provide actionable information, helping form the baseline for effective European adaptation strategies to support the green transition, enabling the European Union to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, and supporting its Green Deal. (video credit: ESA)


ESA Vision — Accelerate the use of space

Introducing the three “accelerators” that will drive Europe’s increased use of space.

Global climate change is the single most challenging issue faced by Europe. It fuels a range of other top-level challenges such as food security, migration, biodiversity loss, struggles for resources, risks to human health, economic losses and threats to social cohesion.

Europe must react swiftly to the climate crisis, while simultaneously developing a better understanding of it. Space is crucial to both. Space enables governments and emergency responders to act rapidly and decisively when facing a crisis. It promotes the understanding of the current state of the environment and the development of a sustainable future. And protecting satellites from solar storms and space debris is crucial to protecting life on Earth.

Complex and rapidly changing geopolitics can quickly expose Europe to new security challenges. Taking the lead in using space to tackle climate change strengthens Europe as a whole and enables it to play a strong role in international cooperation.

1) Rapid and resilient crisis response

Europe’s needs are becoming ever more urgent. Summer flooding across Europe killed 242 people in 2021 and cost more than €30 billion. Thousands of people needed to be evacuated from their homes due to multiple wildfires burning across Greece that destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and arable land. Similar wildfires in 2007 caused estimated total damage of close to €3 billion [1.3% of nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product)].

To save lives and livelihoods, Europe urgently needs a space-based rapid and resilient response for real-time crisis management, to reinforce terrestrial systems that can become compromised by natural disasters or malicious actions.

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Figure 2: Intelligent interconnectivity in space empowers rapid, resilient responses to crises on Earth (image credit: ESA)

What’s the problem?

Climate change is producing more frequent and intense heatwaves across Europe as well as heavy rain and flooding that threatens human life and prosperity. Meanwhile cyberattacks and technical failures threaten today’s increasingly digital world, leading to the disruption of fuel and water supplies. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Risks Report puts extreme weather events and cybersecurity failures as the third and fourth most clear and present dangers to the world, ahead of any other economic, environmental or geopolitical risks.

Why act now?

Summer flooding across Europe killed 242 people in 2021 and cost more than €30 billion. Thousands of people needed to be evacuated from their homes due to multiple wildfires burning across Greece that destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and arable land. Similar wildfires in 2007 caused estimated total damage of close to €3 billion (1.3% of nominal GDP). Meanwhile the digital economy increasingly depends on secure and resilient information in many industries, including manufacturing and transport. To save lives and livelihoods, Europe urgently needs a space-based rapid and resilient response to reinforce terrestrial systems that can become compromised by natural disasters or malicious actions.

What is needed?

New space sensors deployed in a satellite constellation and combined with aerial sensors will ensure full and permanent coverage. The timely collection, dissemination and transformation of the relevant data relies on in-orbit processing and an intelligent, fast and secure interconnected space network to ensure the safety and prosperity of citizens and builds resilience to climate change. Space should enable European governments and emergency services to respond to natural disasters, by providing timely and accurate high resolution images of flooded areas, for example, as well as supplying the precise geolocation of incidents and empowering the emergency response by connecting first responders to their control centers via satellite. Today this is only marginally possible and improving the coordination of existing satellites as a first step will help.

To fully benefit from its investment, Europe needs to create an intelligent, fast and secure interconnected space network for real-time crisis management, including threats to crucial infrastructure such as a cyberattack on a pipeline. This network should use the disruptive technologies that are expected to define the coming decade, including artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. The system will use the European Commission’s proposed secure connectivity initiative, acting as its customer. The user-driven approach requires interactive platforms. They will allow integrated services, which are tailor-made by private and institutional service providers, or users themselves, to directly access the interconnected databases.

Why do this in Europe?

A crisis information management system will increase Europe’s lead in Earth observation systems, establish Europe as a global leader in humanitarian action and support European autonomy in energy and water supply. It will enhance Europe’s digital sovereignty in information handling and communication across the whole of the economy.

What’s the next step?

ESA fosters innovation and will facilitate partnerships between public organizations and private companies to create a common architecture designed in collaboration with the commercial European space industry.

What are the wider benefits?

People living in Europe will be safer and more secure. Their governments will be able to deliver better services, including the timely intervention of civil protection services, the safe operation of data centers and the secure production and supply of energy and water. European businesses and citizens will be able to respond rapidly to world events using data that is kept confidential in a digital world economy.


2) Space for a green future

Space helps people not only to monitor, understand, model and predict, but – crucially – to act on climate-induced and other crises.

To better understand how climate change will affect life on Earth, and to further improve modelling and predictions, space data can be combined with social and internet-of-things data to build a “digital twin” of the planet, exploiting artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies such as quantum sensing. These actions can help support ever better implementation of the EU’s Green Deal.

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Figure 3: Data gleaned from Earth observation will help Europe act to mitigate climate change (image credit: ESA)

What’s the problem?

The climate crisis is the most urgent challenge faced by humanity – affecting every region, continent, and ocean on Earth. In its 2021 ‘code red’ report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that humanity can no longer escape from anthropogenic climate change. Yet fast action could still avert the worst damage.

Why act now?

Earth observation has been essential to identifying and monitoring climate change and it supports mitigation and adaption measures. Space has an untapped potential to help achieve a better understanding through modelling, allowing predictive forecasts, and supporting policy formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Space can also offer sustainable and commercial solutions for a decarbonized, green economy. Satellite-enabled smart traffic management solutions for planes, ships, lorries and cars will help to save energy and cut carbon emissions.

What is needed?

Space is uniquely positioned to make a difference in tackling the threats and challenges faced by humanity. Satellites watch over Earth continuously, helping scientists to monitor, understand, model, predict and act on climate change and its related challenges.

Earth observation data will be combined with in situ environmental measurements, along with artificial intelligence, to construct a digital twin of Earth. This replica of the planet will provide an accurate representation of the past, present and future changes of the world.

This will accelerate the transformation of space data to actionable information using complex modelling, high-performance computing and machine learning, and allowing the development of ‘what if’ simulations to support decision-making.

Why do this in Europe?

Europe leads Earth observation, which can support space-based green transition solutions for society and business. Space for a green future will provide actionable information, helping form the baseline for effective European adaptation strategies to support the green transition, enabling the EU to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, and supporting its Green Deal. It will maintain Europe’s leadership in advanced technologies, particularly quantum computing.

What’s the next step?

Space for a green future will add value to ESA’s role as a leader of space technology and applications, as well as in developing next-generation architectures. It will help to foster new partnerships, in both the public and private sectors, to address complex global challenges.

What are the wider benefits?

Space data will support not only living and working towards living a more sustainable life on Earth, but also aid decision makers in reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The data will be used to monitor how well climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies are working.


3) Protection of space assets

Because people on Earth rely on space for their safety and security, it is vital to keep satellites safe and secure from natural and human-made hazards. Solar storms can damage satellites in space and electrical transmission lines on Earth, resulting in potentially large and long-lasting power cuts. Meanwhile space debris is increasing, threatening active satellites in orbit. Timely and accurate warnings of threats are needed, alongside measures to deal with them.

A European system will provide a clear picture of what is in orbit and protect European sovereignty. It will safeguard the competitiveness of the European space industry by fostering innovation through public-private partnerships. Improved accuracy in debris tracking will reduce numbers of false collision alerts and, as a direct consequence, considerably cut ongoing satellite operating costs.

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Figure 4: Timely and accurate warnings of threats are needed (image credit: ESA)

What’s the problem?

There are a great many objects in orbit around Earth, mostly comprising functioning and dead satellites as well as fragments of past break-ups, explosions and collisions. Some 36,000 objects larger than a tennis ball are orbiting Earth – and only 13% of these are actively controlled. The rest is space junk that threatens all the satellites on which our economies and society depend.

On top of this growing hazard, space weather caused by unpredictable solar activity can damage and even destroy satellites and can cause power blackouts and cut communication networks on the ground.

Developing an air traffic control system for space would protect civil infrastructure on Earth.

Why act now?

Tens of thousands of new satellites, many in constellations, are being launched globally, which starkly increases the chances of collisions. ESA already receives hundreds of warnings each week for its fleet of spacecraft. The current manual methods to assess collision risk and maneuver active satellites out of the way will soon be overwhelmed.

Because societies are becoming ever more dependent on satellites – for mobile internet, personal navigation and autonomous driving – Europe’s vulnerability to disruptions is growing.

Furthermore, even a moderate solar event could cost Europe more than €13 billion in damage and lost services. Such an event happened in 2012, but it just missed Earth. Next time we might not be so lucky.

What is needed?

Europe must develop operational, real-time systems to enable the detection, identification and avoidance of natural and human-made space hazards. The need to remove dead satellites from orbit means developing a new European commercial capacity to provide innovative in-orbit services, like deorbiting, repairing and refuelling active satellites, creating a circular economy in space.

Why do this in Europe?

Building ‘space traffic control’ systems and commercial satellite-servicing capacities are not costs, rather they are investments. Such systems will foster new, made-in-Europe businesses that will secure European technological and commercial leadership as well as autonomy in safely accessing and using space.

Currently Europe is forced to rely on debris orbit data provided by other nations. This puts Europe’s digital sovereignty at risk and, in future, such data will have to be purchased from foreign commercial companies.

A new space weather system will help protect European digital infrastructure, networks and industry from major impacts like blackouts, reinforcing their economic value and resilience. And Europe will continue to act as a role model for the multi-national collaboration that is increasingly needed in today’s world.

What’s the next step?

ESA has the expertise and know-how to design, shape and kick-start the systems needed – the agency has already done so for world-class efforts like Europe’s Galileo navigation fleet and the Copernicus Earth observation system, which is the world’s most successful. With investment from European governments, institutions and commercial entities, a dedicated service provider can bring the new space safety systems into full operation, benefitting all citizens and making spaceflight more sustainable for everyone.

What are the wider benefits?

Building these crucial systems will provide the actionable information and timely warnings that Europe needs to prevent damage and disruption to its economically vital space and ground infrastructure. This will ensure a safer, more stable European society and the prosperity of its citizens, while establishing commercial leadership, protecting freedom of action for Europe and safeguarding the global competitiveness of the European space industry.



1) ”Space for a Green Future,” ESA Applications, 2 November 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Videos/2021/11/Space_for_a_Green_Future




The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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