Uncomfortable space: Why space and satellites are essential in tackling the climate and ecological emergency

astrophotography of the milky way over a derelict wheal house on the coast of cornwall

Launching anything beyond our fragile atmosphere and out into space takes a huge amount of energy, and has an enormous carbon footprint. But space also has huge potential to save us. Not in the sense of exploring galaxies and the concept of humanity settling on other planets once we’ve made too much of a mess of this one; that’s the stuff of science fiction and the daydreams of deluded billionaires. But it’s true that space, and in particular satellites, provide climate scientists with incredibly valuable data in real time. Currently more than 50% of the world’s climate change data comes from satellites. Satellite monitoring is also an important tool in the quest for increased sustainability, and they facilitate energy efficiencies in countless industries. The positive impact of satellites and space science on the environment is complex, convoluted, and conflicts with the obvious negative impact of getting the satellites up there in the first place. For those engaged in environmental or sustainability work, space can be an uncomfortable space.

As a design agency that has always had a planet and people first focus, we’ve identified space as a high carbon industry where there is huge potential for us to test our design for change skills and have a positive impact. We’ve spent nearly two decades working with clients who are already signed up to the eco-agenda; now we feel it’s time to test ourselves and move from working with the usual suspects to the unusual suspects. Can we change hearts and minds in sectors such as the space industry, to embrace and action a climate positive future? Are we actually good at what we say we do?

The carbon footprint of the space industry

Whilst the carbon footprint of the space industry is relatively small, that’s only because there are relatively few launches each year. For an object to beat gravity and to have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” (to quote John Gillespie Magee’s famous poem, High Flight) it requires a huge amount of thrust, provided by burning propellant fuel. Getting anything into space is not sustainable.

“Globally, rocket launches wouldn’t need to increase by much from the current 100 or so performed each year to induce harmful effects that are competitive with other sources, like ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and CO2 from aircraft.”
Eloise Marais, associate professor of physical geography at University College London

Although the number of airline flights every day far exceeds the number of space launches each year by around three orders of magnitude (approximately 114 launches per year compared to around 100,000 flights each day) the comparative emissions are more damaging. These emissions are released directly into the upper atmosphere where they sustain for several years. The various liquid and solid fuel options emit different exhausts, such as water vapour, CO2, soot and nitrogen oxides, depending on the fuel. In the case of space, water vapour emissions are environmentally problematic because when released directly into the stratosphere they form clouds and have a warming impact. All of the above deplete stratospheric ozone (the ozone layer).

Figuring out the overall effect of rocket launches on the atmosphere will require detailed modelling, in order to account for these complex processes and the persistence of these pollutants in the upper atmosphere. Equally important is a clear understanding of how the space tourism industry will develop.”
Eloise Marais

Can the space launch industry be more sustainable?

Compared to traditional vertical launch, of the sort that immediately comes to mind when thinking of space launches, horizontal launch offers a lower impact alternative. Also known as “air launch to orbit”, horizontal launch uses a conventional airplane to carry a rocket and its payload (satellites) to altitude, where it is released and the rockets fire to deliver it into a low Earth orbit. The reduced mass and thrust required of the rocket compared to sending it straight up off the ground (less thrust is required so the rocket requires less fuel and is in turn lighter) makes it cheaper and reduces its environmental impact. Horizontal launch makes use of existing aerospace infrastructure and can be launched on demand; it’s no different to a normal airliner taking off from an airport, except that it’s carrying a space rocket and satellite/s instead of passengers. It’s lower impact than vertical launch, but it’s not no-impact. It’s “less bad”. There is still a negative impact upon our fragile, life-sustaining atmosphere.

Why do we even need to send more satellites into space?

(The role of satellites in climate science)

Some space missions are more justifiable than others. We’d argue that billionaire pleasure trips cannot be justified during a climate and ecological emergency. A case can be put forward, however, for the contributions of satellites, in particular the small CubeSats (small satellite modules that are 10cm x 10cm in size, weighing less than 1.5kg) for real-time environmental monitoring. Data from satellites provides authoritative data for more than half of the 50 essential climate variables (ECVs) measured and tracked by climate scientists. The first satellite to provide an accurate measurement of Earth’s atmospheric temperatures was launched by NASA in 1969, meaning that scientists now have five decades of data to work with. There are now more than 162 satellites orbiting Earth that collect highly accurate ECV data.

This information helps scientists to chart the evolution for the key components of the climate, better understand Earth system processes, predict future change and drive international action.”
The European Space Agency

About Spaceport Cornwall

The Spaceport Cornwall project is a consortium made up of Cornwall Council
(the owner of the site and project), UK Space Agency (funder and licensing), Virgin Orbit (the current launch operator) and Goonhilly Earth Station (tracking and mission operations). Their aim is to provide “a safe, dedicated and responsible way to access space, capable of supporting small satellite launches and connecting people, businesses and ideas” whilst demonstrating industry leadership in sustainability and developing Cornwall’s “space cluster” to generate jobs and economic growth for the county.

“The UK is home to some of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers, which currently ship their products overseas for launch. We are supporting them by fostering a new domestic launch market, with spaceports and launch operators providing services across the UK and catalysing investment from all over the world.”
Ian Annett, UK Space Agency Deputy CEO

Space and Spaceport Cornwall’s potential for greater good

We believe in Spaceport Cornwall’s potential to not only use space for good, but also to lead by example and catalyse change within the space launch industry, and we believe that is largely down to one person: Melissa Thorpe. Melissa is the head of Spaceport Cornwall and she is not only determined to use her role to make a positive impact, but she’s achieving it.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what space technology is, and what space is doing for the benefiting of life on Earth; everything from facilitating and improving our communications and making people more aware of what’s going on around the world, but also tracking the impact of climate change so that policy makers are getting real time and unbiased data that they can use to inform policies. It also impacts areas from healthcare to making agriculture more efficient. Space technology and data is changing the way that we’re living. We’ll be the first space port anywhere in the world to have an ethical framework but to also have a complete sustainability action plan, including a full and ongoing carbon assessment of what we’re doing as well as being committed as a site to being the most sustainable launch location in the world. And that isn’t just about the technology being greener, cleaner and more reusable, it’s about everything that we do from the team to the site and our location, working with communities, but also, right down to our marketing materials and merchandise that we’re selling. It’s about everything that we’re doing.  We believe that Cornwall has an opportunity to then challenge the rest of the industry, because space is actually quite a polluting industry. We want to do things differently.”

Melissa grew up on the Wild West coast of Canada, the daughter of a firefighter plane pilot and a park ranger; from a young age she had a passion for astronomy, aerospace, and the natural world.  She studied STEM subjects and economics at university and completed a masters at the London School of Economics where she studied the social and economic impact of “space clusters” that have developed around Boeing and Airbus facilities.  Her expertise in the economics of the aviation and aerospace industry brought her to Cornwall to assess and enhance the county’s assets in that sector and to look at how more jobs could be created around them.  When the UK Space Agency designated Newquay as a horizontal launch site in 2014 Melissa was a part of the original Spaceport Cornwall team.  Eight years later Mel is in charge of the organisation and is about to oversee Cornwall’s first space launch later this year.  She’s come a long way from a small town in the forests of Vancouver Island, and the hurdles and lack of opportunities that she has had to overcome to achieve this are the drivers for the education outreach work that she does working with TecGirls and going into Cornish schools to encourage young girls and teens (like her own two) to pursue science, technology and engineering subjects.

“I see it very much as my responsibility to engage with young people in schools all round Cornwall. I love it. I never had women come to my school and inspire me to become a scientist when I was a child. I want them to be inspired to become the pioneers of tomorrow.”

Students from Cornish secondary schools who won a competition to cover the first launch, via Falmouth Packet.

As the head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa is also responsible for many of the project’s sustainability initiatives and meeting their requirement, as a public sector taxpayer funded organisation (through Cornwall Council), to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“I am very excited to form a sustainability steering group. Because, I can’t do this on my own but there is a community of people who can help me and who I think will want to help me. I’m looking for about 10-15 people; a group of critical friends. I’m not here for people to tell me how brilliant space and Spaceport are; I want people who will look through our impact report and say if they think we’ve missed something or if they think we can do something better. That’s part of our transparency and engagement. I really need a group of people who will help me do this in a positive way. We are going to space. Cornwall is going to space this summer. That is really, really, exciting, but let’s do it in a way that we can be proud of.”

To achieve carbon neutrality, Spaceport Cornwall are working to reduce their carbon footprint across scopes 1, 2 & 3 as far as possible before mitigating any residual emissions, all in line with science-based targets. Spaceport Cornwall is the first spaceport in the world to carry out a full carbon impact assessment prior to launch and about to publish their first Sustainability Impact Report and Action Plan. Their sustainability efforts will be built supported by four key projects: The first launch will deliver Kernow Sat 1 into orbit, which will monitor the oceans around Cornwall to identify areas for sea grass restoration, monitor kelp forests, and monitor pollution levels; the Centre For Space Technologies at Newquay Airport will focus on environmental intelligence and space, and sustainability innovations in the sector; an educational programme with schools across the county; and implementing sustainable practices on the ground, as well as in space, by increasing biodiversity at and decarbonising Newquay Airport’s site, and hosting The Eden Project’s National Wildflower collection.

Melissa is breaking the mould. In an industry dominated by men who are often older than her, she is leading by example, shaking up the status quo, and cutting a path for a more sustainable space industry as well as for the young women and girls who will follow in her footsteps. She is shooting for the stars both literally and figuratively.

Working with Spaceport Cornwall

Leap have worked with Spaceport Cornwall to create their 2021 Sustainability Report, the first report of its kind published by a spaceport anywhere in the world. We recognise and acknowledge that the act of launching rockets and satellites into space is not a sustainable practice and has a negative impact on the environment. This puts us into an uncomfortable space. We also recognise and acknowledge the potential positive impact of those satellites in measuring, understanding and helping to mitigate the worst of the climate and ecological crisis.

“We don’t know if we will succeed in using our design for change skills to nudge the needle towards a lower impact space industry, but we believe in people like Melissa and her hopes, aims and challenges for Spaceport Cornwall and it’s role to lead a code of conduct for the future of space.”
Matt Hocking, Leap’s founder and chief sustainability officer

We see our working relationship with Mel and her team at Spaceport Cornwall as an opportunity to help them to create positive change in a polluting industry, demonstrating responsibility, consideration, and taking steps to reduce the impact of space launches. Sometimes it’s good to get outside of the green eco-bubble, and work with those businesses and organisations outside of it that are willing to take steps towards sustainability and who, in doing so, have the potential to make a significant difference beyond their own immediate carbon footprint. We see it as being in all of our best interest to help them, because their little might mean a lot.