Space and the environment

23 September 2020

It may not appear obvious at a first glance, but even though they seem to be so distant, space and environmental protection are two worlds much closer than we think.

Observation satellites orbiting the Earth, for instance, allow us to measure and examine the health of our planet and investigate its deserts, glacier movements or forest extension, providing us with a clear picture of everything that takes place on its surface.

These Earth observation satellites also collect a mass of data which, when carefully analysed, is essential for prevention activities and for forecasting future trends of our planet’s health. They support the management of land – and of such precious and limited resources as water and soil in key sectors like agriculture or city planning.

The link between space and the environment, however, is not limited to Earth observation. Communication and positioning and navigation satellites also play a significant, even though less evident at first glance, role in environmental protection and in managing the emergencies associated with climate change.

Communication satellites enable access to the internet and phone services worldwide, thus becoming valuable allies during environmental emergencies. Positioning and navigation satellites have become essential for the protection of ecosystems; scientists are able to monitor the movements of wild animals using these satellites, and with the data they produce, measure the impact of mankind on their habitat.

Finally, weather satellites are steady watchers of our skies and essential instruments for weather forecasting.

The strong link between space and the environment is repeatedly affirmed by the United Nations, which has emphasised how space infrastructures and technologies are an “enabler” of new services and applications for the achievement of each one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Sustainable Development Goals, SDG), part of the 2030 Agenda.

Space and climate change, the role of Telespazio

In March 2020, researchers of the European Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a study suggesting that, because of climate change, “ambient trends in shoreline dynamics, combined with coastal recession driven by sea level rise, could result in the near extinction of almost half of the world’s sandy beaches by the end of the century.”

According to the study, Australia will be among the places most affected areas, with up to half its overall 25,000 kilometres of coastline influenced.

Satellites raised the alarm to this, and satellites can help understand the issue and limit damage.

Recently, Telespazio, through its British subsidiary, signed a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the development of a solution capable of studying – through satellite data – the erosion of the Australian Gold Coast, one of the most famous coastlines in the world, popular amongst tourists and surfers all year round.

Telespazio UK’s project, in collaboration with the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management, will help local authorities find better solutions to mitigate the impact of erosion and to keep the beaches’ beauty as intact as possible. Once completed and presented at the next World Climate Summit (COP26, Glasgow 2021), the project will be used in other areas of the planet.

In this case, satellite data can enable a new technological solution capable of preventing shore erosion as well as its consequences – both environmental and economic – on a whole community.

Satellites also play a key role supporting environmental sustainability in “Life METRO Adapt”, a project promoted by the Milan Metropolitan City.

The project, in which e-GEOS – a Telespazio (80%) and ASI (20%) company – brought its geo-information expertise, has integrated satellite data with ‘traditional’ census numbers to identify and fight a phenomenon that climate change has made increasingly common: “urban heat islands”, i.e. the city areas where thermal anomalies gather during the summer months.

The e-GEOS data allowed for the creation of risk maps capable of helping city authorities provide tools to implement possible corrective action in both the civil protection and city planning areas.

COSMO-SkyMED – the watcher of ice

September 2010, North-West Greenland. Global warming triggers the detachment of over 250 square kilometres of ice from the main body of the Petermann Glacier.

Four hundred kilometres above, the constellation of Italian COSMO-SkyMed satellites funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and Italian Ministry of Defence observe the glacier’s course and evolution of the iceberg until it breaks up. The data collected provides important scientific information to the entire international community, as well as commercial information to ships in transit.

The observations of COSMO-SkyMed on the Petermann Glacier are one of many surveys carried out by the Italian constellation, which, over time, has repeatedly proven its essential role in observing the most significant consequences of global warming.

Telespazio, e-GEOS and the whole Leonardo group play a key role in COSMO-SkyMED. This includes Telespazio’s Fucino Space Centre housing the constellation’s Control Centre and e-GEOS acquiring the satellite data for civil applications and markets worldwide. Thales Alenia Space, instead, is the prime contractor for both COSMO-SkyMed and COSMO Second Generation.

The Leonardo group of companies is also involved, through the participation of e-GEOS in ARCSAR (Arctic Security and Emergency Preparedness Network), in ice protection. This initiative, promoted by the European Union and led by the Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre of Northern Norway, involves 21 research bodies and authorities of 13 countries. e-GEOS is the project’s sole industrial partner.

The five-year project started in 2019 and aims - through e-GEOS’s technology and information – to advance the discussion about aspects concerning security, emergency response and technological and sustainable development of the Arctic.


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