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Space gardens and CO2 detectives

Katharina Wecker Cologne, Germany
April 19, 2018

Climate change is a global threat. So where to get the best perspective on the problem? Space! Scientists are monitoring Earth with satellites and running experiments in zero gravity to help save our fragile planet.

Planet Erde
Image: Imago/Zumapress/NASA

When Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to leave the confines of Earth, looked back and saw it from outside, his worldview changed forever. "I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is," Gagarin said on his return. "Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it."

Since then, numerous astronauts have reported similar feelings of protectiveness toward a planet that suddenly appeared tiny, fragile and alone in the universe. Most recently, US astronaut Scott Kelly said looking down at our planet from space makes you "more of an environmentalist."

Kelly saw something that wouldn't have been as visible in Gagarin's day. He reported that from the vantage point of the International Space Station (ISS), he was viewing some parts of the world through a thick veil of pollution.

But these days, that extraterrestrial perspective isn't just changing our relationship with the planet on a conceptual level. It's helping us develop solutions to protect it.

Juri Gagarin
Seeing it from space, Yuri Gagarin grasped in beauty and fragility of our planet in a whole new way Image: picture alliance/dpa

A fresh perspective on climate change

This week, more than a hundred scientists gathered in Cologne at the Climate Change Conference organized by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to discuss how space-based research helps us better understand and adapt to climate change.

"The Earth is sick and we have to monitor it. I think one of the best ways to do so is via satellites," Maurice Borgeaud, head of science, applications and future technologies Department at the European Space Agency (ESA) said at the conference.

Climate scientists are collecting and analyzing data from dozens of Earth observation satellites circuiting our planet to monitor glacial ice melt and sea-level rise, detect desertification and even issue early warnings of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.

These observations are crucial to fighting climate change, according to Juan Carlos Villagran de Leon, who heads the Bonn office of the United Nation Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) program.

"Space gives us the global view to global processes we cannot get from isolated measurements," he told DW. "One of the key issues is sea level rise. Data collected in space allows us to compare what happens in one region in the world to another region."

Landung Marssonde Pathfinder mit dem Rover Sojourner
The closest we've got to colonizing another planet is landing robots on Mars — their holiday snaps don't look very invitingImage: NASA/JPL

Most of the data from Earth observation satellites is now open and accessible to governments around the world, free of charge. The UN hopes policymakers will use it to up their contributions under the Paris Agreement to cut emissions.

Only when you have the facts do you know what needs to change, Villagran de Leon says.

CO2 space detectives

And soon, the satellites could gather data not just on the effects if climate change, but also its cause.

Currently, scientists can't accurately quantify the rate at which we're emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or where they are coming from.

The carbon footprints of individual countries are calculated based on energy use and production data of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. But with no way to independently quantify and verify CO2 emissions, it's hard to keep track of how well we're doing at reducing them, researchers say.

Mesmerizing satellite photos capture Earth

"If we want to meet the Paris Agreement, we need to monitor CO2 emissions in order to ensure we are reaching our targets," Philippe Ciais, climate expert at the Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace (IPSL), said at the DLR conference.

The ESA is trying to do just that — with satellites that will be able to measure exactly how many greenhouse gas emissions are in our atmoshphere, where they are coming from and even pinpoint individual emitters, such as large power stations. These CO2 detectives can help identify big polluters and support governments in prioritizing regulations to achieve their climate goals.

The ESA plans to launch the CO2 Monitoring Mission around 2025. If that seems a long way off for such an urgent problem as climate change, Heinrich Bovensmann, climate expert at the University of Bremen Institute of Environmental Physics, says space missions require a lot of planning — usually 15 to 20 years from concept to implementation.

In fact, the CO2 Monitoring Mission has been fast-tracked. "From what I have seen so far, all participating parties such as the ESA, the European Union, the scientists, they are all seriously committed to implementing it promptly," Bovensmann told DW. "The CO2 mission has currently the biggest priority."

Extraterrestrial agriculture

And it's not just data on pollution that space agencies are contributing to sustaining life on Earth.

Astronauts began growing vegetables in space as part of a project designed with a potential Mars mission in mind. But they discovered something that could help us survive on our own planet.

Kosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov in ISS cc NASA
Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov enjoys the bounty only our planet can provide - while in spaceImage: NASA

Experimenting with how plants get on in zero gravity, astronauts tending their garden aboard the IS found they could grow vegetables with less water than they'd need back home. The research could help terrestrial farmers save water — which will play an increasingly important role in feeding the world in a hotter climate.

Read more: Scientists harvest Antarctic greenhouse vegetables

In early April, ISS crew members harvested red romaine lettuce from NASA's VEG experiment, the third round of the project. They had to save some of the harvest for research back on Earth. But the rest, they were allowed to eat.

"It was delicious," astronaut Anton Shkaplerov announced on Instagram, welcoming a change from the dehydrated fare he'd had to get used to.

Even a simple lettuce leaf becomes a thing of wonder once you leave planet Earth. So with landing the first humans on the barren uninhabitable wastes of Mars still some way off, we'd do well to listen to the space explorers, and preserve the planet we have.