Space tech im­prov­ing lives and mak­ing the world better

Satel­lites can help us achieve many sus­tain­able global goals

African Independent - - OUTLOOK - WILL MARSHALL

IAM of­ten asked: “Why are you build­ing satel­lites for space when there are so many prob­lems to fix here on Earth?” It’s a per­fectly ra­tio­nal ques­tion. The short an­swer is that we need to go to space to help us here on Earth. Satel­lites have played an enor­mous role in im­prov­ing the state of the world, and will do even more as an ex­plo­sion of tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion en­ables large new fleets of small satel­lites to be de­ployed with rad­i­cal new ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals), unan­i­mously adopted at the United Na­tions in 2015, are a great sum­mary of the world’s cur­rent chal­lenges. Space is one of many im­por­tant tools that can be used to help us ad­dress them.

In May, the UN held a meet­ing on Tech­nol­ogy In­no­va­tion and the Global Goals, and I was asked to ad­dress the role of satel­lites in help­ing the world achieve the SDGs.

The global cov­er­age of satel­lites of­fer a unique, fact­based per­spec­tive that can help us over­come our great­est chal­lenges.

In­for­ma­tion from these space­craft can help us im­prove agri­cul­tural yields and protect habi­tat loss and stop de­for­esta­tion.

They dis­cov­ered the hole in the ozone layer and their data to­day re­mains key to fight­ing cli­mate change; and they’ve helped us to con­nect the world through in­ter­net and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, an in­tan­gi­ble ser­vice for mil­lions. Satel­lites in space have done much for us so far and, in the fu­ture, they will of­fer much more.

As the world turns its at­ten­tion to the Global Goals, we should look sys­tem­at­i­cally at how satel­lites can help us reach those Earthly tar­gets. Thus, my col­leagues and I an­a­lysed the goals and found that 12 of the 17 SDGs could be reached with the help of satel­lites.

Here are seven of the goals and ex­am­ples of how satel­lites can help: Earth imag­ing satel­lites Goal 2: End­ing hunger Satel­lite im­agery can tell crop yield on a pixel by pixel ba­sis – en­abling farm­ers to better de­cide when to add wa­ter or fer­tiliser and when to har­vest.

By imag­ing the land us­ing spe­cial spec­tral bands (such as near in­fra-red) we can de­velop a veg­e­ta­tion in­dex that rep­re­sents crop vigour and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Agri­cul­tural land rep­re­sents 37% of the land area of earth and satel­lites are uniquely ca­pa­ble of col­lect­ing this data across such a vast ter­ri­tory. For ex­am­ple, my own com­pany, Planet Labs, im­ages the whole land mass of Earth daily to help with these ef­forts. Goal 6: Clean wa­ter Satel­lite im­ages en­able broad and ef­fi­cient mon­i­tor­ing of reser­voir wa­ter lev­els, pro­vid­ing early warn­ing of short­ages and uni­form data across dif­fer­ent coun­tries that share wa­ter sources, in­creas­ing trans­parency and con­sis­tency in wa­ter de­liv­ery. Goal 13: Cli­mate ac­tion Of­ten the ear­li­est and clear­est in­di­ca­tions of cli­mate change can be ob­served in very re­mote re­gions of the world. Earth-ob­ser­va­tion satel­lites en­able global mon­i­tor­ing of de­for­esta­tion, pol­lu­tion lev­els in bod­ies of wa­ter, sta­tus of ice caps and de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, and en­able early and im­me­di­ate ac­tion to pre­vent these events. Goal 14: Life be­low wa­ter Satel­lites can help track and stop il­le­gal fish­ing by pair­ing ves­sel Au­to­matic Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem (AIS) transpon­ders – which show the lo­ca­tion of le­gal fish­ing ves­sels and are legally re­quired to be switched on – with up-to-date satel­lite im­agery, en­abling the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of ves­sels op­er­at­ing with­out AIS sig­nals and which are more likely to be en­gaged in il­le­gal fish­ing ac­tiv­ity. Goal 15: Life on land Satel­lites can help mon­i­tor and protect wildlife habi­tats by iden­ti­fy­ing in­di­ca­tors of im­pend­ing de­vel­op­ment or de­struc­tion and alert­ing author­i­ties to en­gage early and stop it. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites Goals 3 and 4: Good health and well-be­ing, and qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion

Fifty per­cent of Earth’s 7.5 bil­lion people have ac­cess to the in­ter­net. A global net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites, such as those be­ing de­vel­oped by SpaceX and OneWeb, could en­able in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity to a ma­jor­ity of people, es­pe­cially those in re­mote re­gions where de­vel­op­ment is scarce.

With ac­cess to the in­ter­net comes in­creased knowl­edge shar­ing, the ben­e­fits of the best doc­tors and teach­ers via telemedicine and ed­u­ca­tion, and greater com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

It’s clear satel­lites can help many of the Global Goals. Lead­ers in gov­ern­ments, at com­pa­nies and NGOs should make use of these tools in their in­vest­ments and de­ci­sion mak­ing to help us achieve the SDGs as fast as pos­si­ble.

On July 9, 1965, the US am­bas­sador to the UN, Ad­lai Steven­son, evoked a con­cept of a “Space­ship Earth” – later pop­u­larised by the au­thor Buck­min­ster Fuller – that would mo­ti­vate think­ing on sus­tain­abil­ity for decades to come.

“We travel to­gether, pas­sen­gers on a lit­tle space ship, de­pen­dent on its vul­ner­a­ble re­serve of air and soil; all com­mit­ted for our safety to its se­cu­rity and peace; pre­served from an­ni­hi­la­tion only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our frag­ile craft.”

Why not solve the prob­lems here on Earth be­fore go­ing to space? Well, we need to go to space be­cause we are on Space­ship Earth and, to take care of it, we need to understand it and understand better how we in­ter­act with it.

This ar­ti­cle forms part of a se­ries of posts by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Global Fu­ture Coun­cil on Space Tech­nolo­gies.

Will Marshall is chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Planet Labs


The Geosyn­chronous Satel­lite Launch Ve­hi­cle (GSLV-F09) car­ry­ing the GSAT-9 or the ‘South Asia’ satel­lite, takes off suc­cess­fully from its launch pad at the Sri­harikota’s Satish Dhawan Space Cen­tre in Andhra Pradesh, India.

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