Sustainability on Earth depends on our exploration of space

17 November 2019
Sustainability on Earth depends on our exploration of space

Today, the world faces mounting environmental challenges. With rising sea levels, increasing oceanic temperatures, desertification and resource shortages, our planet faces distinct and unprecedented threats. Now more than ever, we must use all means at our disposal to develop cutting-edge sustainability practices on Earth, while also enhancing existing ones.

Some may wonder why a space agency, which focuses on furthering human knowledge of the universe which surrounds us and designing satellites and probes which can withstand the harsh conditions beyond this planet, is concerning itself with environmental protection.

Yet I would say that each and every one of us has a role to play in ensuring the future of our planet. Entire sectors, some of which are seemingly unrelated to sustainability and environmental protection, can in fact provide global solutions. I have no doubt that space is one such sector.

So, how can a space agency, dedicated to the study of the stars and the exploration of what lies beyond the fragile line of our atmosphere, lead this planet’s efforts at self-preservation?

One of the biggest differences we can make — whether on an individual or a global scale — is to improve efficiency in the way we use resources. By reducing the amount we consume, we reduce our net waste and emissions as a result. Here, we have already learned a lot from space exploration and utilisation, which require highly efficient processes as a result of the strict weight limits applied during spacecraft launches.

Water preservation and recycling techniques have brought much-needed benefits to at-risk communities around the world. For example, the University of Kenitra in Morocco is applying techniques to filter and purify nearby groundwater supplies that were initially developed for recycling wastewater into drinking water for astronauts.[1] Providing water for some 1,200 students, this reduces the need for transporting drinking water, bringing the added benefit of lower carbon emissions from the logistics sector.

This example highlights the clear imperative to develop innovative technologies for water efficiency and conservation, especially with estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages by 2025.[2] It also highlights the extent to which all of our actions are connected. When taken together, small scale local projects around the world will have a global impact in reducing emissions and waste. 

This convergence of activities across different industries is an important area of attention. Through its far-reaching impact, the space sector operates at the intersection of other key industries related to sustainability — from renewable energy and oil and gas to logistics and construction.

As such, I’m pleased to see space added as a pillar of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. While space has already benefited environmental and sustainability efforts, there is always more that can be done. For example, the construction industry could adopt a range of new materials and technologies in order to reduce power demands in buildings, from self-illuminating materials to voltage controllers.[3]

Locally, the UAE Space Agency has incorporated sustainable practices into the regulatory framework of the UAE space sector. Including, for example, measures to reduce space debris and mitigate its impact in cooperation with the international space community. These efforts are in addition to the Agency’s work with partners throughout the national space sector to implement a range of projects that bolster environmental efforts and sustainable practices both in the UAE and abroad.

Firstly, the landmark Mars Scientific City being developed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre has the primary objective of replicating conditions of Mars in order for us to develop technologies and techniques for surviving the inhospitable conditions of our neighbouring planet. In doing so, we will produce tangible and practical solutions for some of our most pressing challenges, including sustainable water supplies, hyper-efficient recycling of resources and enhanced renewable energy production systems. Once launched in in the next few years, I am sure that the research and development set to take place at Mars Scientific City will bring tremendous benefit to humanity.

In the near term, the MeznSat project, funded by the UAE Space Agency, is currently being designed and developed by local undergraduate students at Khalifa University for Science and Technology and the American University of Ras Al Khaima. The 3U CubeSat will collect data about carbon dioxide and methane levels above the UAE. This valuable data will then provide insights into the concentration of nutrients in the Arabian Gulf’s coastal waters. Among other applications, MeznSat will allow us to predict algal blooms and implement precautionary measures.

Pioneering projects such as these are providing students and early career professionals with tangible opportunities throughout the space sector — ones that will bring potential for significant and global benefit surrounding environmental protection and sustainable practices.

The Mars Hope Probe, which will enter Martian orbit in 2021, represents the first  Arab and Islamic interplanetary mission. Not only is this a truly inspirational project for our youth, it will also deliver on the environmental agenda. Vast amounts of environmental data gathered during the Hope Probe’s mission will allow us to get a better understanding of the Red Planet’s climate and, in the process, that of our own.

The range of scholarships and agreements with universities that we have put in place serve to facilitate this vision of using space to bolster sustainable activity on Earth. Indeed, with more awareness than ever about the environmental implications of our actions, engaging the upcoming generation and facilitating their entry to the sector and industry is one of the surest ways of achieving this.

Our future on Earth is a reality contingent on the co-operation of all of us, and that is why I am proud that the UAE Space Agency can take learnings from the distant cosmos and faraway planets, and reapply them to those of us here on Earth. I am of the firm belief that the space sector is uniquely positioned to lead the development of sustainable technologies and mitigate the impacts of climate change.