Look up, off world: The satellite tech driving climate action

From human-made shooting stars collecting never-before-accessible atmospheric data, to habitat condition assessment systems expediating biodiversity net gain efforts, we take a look at innovations that could help save the planet, all of which are out of this world.

Earth with clouds above the African continent

‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,’ astronomer Carl Sagan famously instructed members of the human race after the Voyager 1 spacecraft captured Earth in a photo from 4billion miles away. 

‘Pale Blue Dot’ remains the longest-distance image we have of our planet. Set against endless space, cast in a scattered ray of sunlight, it presents the world as a lonely, vulnerable, and – crucially – small space floating in vastness. A home to abundant life in an interstellar ocean that has so far failed to produce compelling evidence other planets are also inhabited. The shot has understandably been championed by environmentalists since it was taken in 1990, in a bid to trigger a more responsible mindset in ourselves. 

This wasn’t the first time an off-world point of view helped us gain a new perspective and consider how fortunate, and how shortsighted, our civilization is. Footage from the moon landings in 1969 offered an early glimpse at the same revelation, and even watching back now, over half a century later, the impact hasn’t waned. Back in the 21st Century, innovations in satellite and space technology are proving increasingly vital in facilitating the kind of large scale, high impact climate action we desperately need to save that world.

Founded in 2019, and launched to market two years later, AiDash offers a complex service which, thankfully, can be summarised in relatively simple terms – utilising satellite technology to remotely monitor geographically distributed assets. The firm provides this to a range of businesses, organisations and sectors, but it’s the ability to assess habitats, the condition of land, propensity for wildfires and flooding, and model for various future environmental scenarios, that has us – and local authorities across the UK – excited. 

‘National Grid [Partners] was one of our first investors, and it was fortunate they had been given a target of 10% biodiversity net gain across all 1,300 properties, within a 10 year timeframe. Now we’ve also got several water companies using us, for their environmental rating now or next year’s price review. Ofgem could give them tasks around increasing biodiversity on the land, so they need a baseline now,’ says Shashin Mishra, Vice President, EMEA, at AiDash.

‘AiDash allows users to run various scenarios and see outcomes. So if you’re looking at land, and need 10% biodiversity net gain, traditionally you’d need ecologists who know the land to run their own scenario as to what can be introduced to benefit. Using our system, you can see all the land immediately, and run scenarios visually. You can free hand draw where you want a new habitat to be created, and see the impact of that. If you like it, keep it, if not, throw it away and start again,’ he continues. 

One of countless off-world technologies that could revolutionise – or at least significantly expediate climate-positive actions and processes – AiDash is currently looking to expand its partnerships with local authorities in the UK. ‘Eventually I want my system to be able to scan the whole of England at once. We are offering local authorities the chance to scan their entire area in one, we just need them to sign up. 

‘There are two challenges facing local governments, as the Environment Act comes online they are going to receive biodiversity baselines and net gain (BNG) plans. For each scheme approved, they will need to monitor the projects for net gain over 30 years. If an authority moves forward with 500 projects per year, in four years they will have 2000 to monitor, each year, for three decades. That’s a big number. We are offering a solution that will save 80-88% on time resources. 

‘So authorities can tell, very easily, which projects are falling behind, non-compliant or not actually delivering on targets. The second offer we make is being able to scan an entire council area, which allows us to identify sites for potential BNG projects and credits. That’s hard for urban areas, as they have very limited available land and sometimes the ideal land might be sandwiched between houses, for example. So the ability to physically find those sites is very low. This system makes it easier.’ 

While efficiency and future planning can both be significantly improved through AiDash, the software can also help make areas more resilient. Currently, the system supports monitoring for both storms and wildfires, using weather data – including climate – to look at the land and predict the probability of an event ocuring. This can cover both rural and urban areas. 

‘We see ourselves playing an important role in helping, at scale, build a more sustainable environment. So in biodiversity we’re talking about millions of hectares accurately measured and planned for positive changes, but it’s not just biodiversity. That’s just one metric. Before that, it was carbon, and there’s a lot more we can track and accurately measure right now,’ says Mishin. ‘Another part of the programme we want to promote is users being able to create their own carbon offset or inset programmes. An issue there has been around trust. We strongly believe that the best way to reduce carbon, capture more carbon and create credits, is through removal, not avoidance.

‘The best way to measure that is across the entire map, so our software, if it looks at a woodland, will measure every single tree, which then means we bring in tree health data, identifying where dead trees are, allowing us to predict wildfire risk,’ he continues. ‘The catch 22 is that we have biodiversity and then carbon – leave a dead tree where there is a propensity for wildfires and it could add fuel to it. Remove it, and you take carbon from the land and reduce its ability to sustain biodiversity. These decisions on exactly how to handle it need to be made by someone who really knows the land. We just provide the information so they can make an informed choice.’

Over on the continent, climate action is also looking up, or down, from on high, as Astrocast‘s Eric Menard is quick to point out. The Switzerland-based company builds nano-satellites, roughly the size of a shoebox, which – once launched into orbit by firms such as Space-X – can be used to provide Internet of Things connectivity in some of the most remote locations on the planet.

Founded in 2014, the sales pitch is again deceptively straight forward – ‘enabling the monitoring, tracking, and communicating with remote assets from anywhere in the world.’ Just like AiDash, the use cases are almost infinite, and many fall into the climate and environmental sector. 

‘We are able to get data from mountains, deserts, oceans, places it would be hard to get it from, and sell that on at an affordable price,’ Menard tells us. ‘Our satellites are not that expensive in themselves, so under $1million compared to $60million investment needed for most. Each we use has a five year commercial lifespan, and every time we send a new satellite up it represents an improvement on the last. We can refresh and update the constellation very effectively. 

‘Our clients include agricultural businesses, who maybe want to control water consumption. In some countries, you could be talking about an area the size of Switzerland using lots of resources. We can help them track and reduce impact from resource usage, or pollution, which might come from fertiliser,’ he continues. ‘One project we are involved in is tracking livestock – a herd of goats in Senegal. The idea is to try and understand how animals are moving in relation to accessible drinking water.’ 

aerial photography of green field surrounded with body of water

While Astrocast and AiDash are both already operational, ALE has yet to make a similar impact, although when it does you can guarantee global headlines. The Tokyo-based space company has confirmed its first artificial meteor shower will take place in 2025, producing human-made shooting stars to light up the night sky. According to founder, Dr Lena Okajima, the project strikes a balance between entertainment and science. 

‘[I have] always believed that fundamental science is indispensable for the sustainable development of humankind. However, during my time at university, I became aware of the massive financial burden that scientific research often entails, and the struggle to secure funding for research initiatives,’ Okajima tells us.

‘This led me to wonder if there could be an alternative path, a way to circulate funds in scientific research that doesn’t rely heavily on public financing,’ she continues. ‘This thinking eventually led to the birth of human-made shooting stars. The concept is to create a form of entertainment through artificial meteors that would not only captivate many people but also generate funds that could be funnelled back into scientific research.’

The shooting stars themselves have similar mechanics to those that occur naturally. The main difference is that ALE’s own will also be monitored and used to collect invaluable data from the mesosphere, an atmospheric layer between 60 and 80km above the ground. Traditionally, this region has been incredibly difficult to study, so the results of the analysis could break new ground and improve our understanding of climate change mechanisms and the accuracy of weather forecasting. 

‘Our atmospheric data business is still in the development stage, and many details are yet to be determined. We are currently conducting research in consultation with various stakeholders to determine what kind of data should be collected. However, by utilising atmospheric data that could not be collected before, we can potentially improve the accuracy of forecasts,’ says Okajima. ‘For instance, more precise predictions of heavy rainfall could help predict the impact of landslides and floods.

‘The project is currently in the development stage of the human-made shooting star satellite 3(ALE-3), which is set to be launched in 2024 and begin service in 2025 in terms of entertainment,’ she continues. ‘In parallel with this, we are advancing research into atmospheric data collection. However, as we can only collect atmospheric data after the human-made shooting stars have streamed, the delivery of results will be further in the future.’ 

Images: NASA (Top) / AI Dash (Middle) / ImaginEarth La Terre En Images (Bottom)





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