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Emerging Technology for Space: New Opportunities for Space-Enabled Net-Zero by 2050

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The fifth edition of the Emerging Technology for Space webinar series, hosted by Satellite Applications Catapult and University of Glasgow, was the second webinar of a two-part mini-series on Space-Enabled Net Zero by 2050 (summary blog post of part one on space-based monitoring and data science). This webinar focused on the new opportunities in the space sector for achieving the target of net zero by 2050 and brought together experts from both academia and industry to explore the latest research and discuss some of the opportunities and challenges.

The webinar began with an opening by Amanda Campbell, Head of Net Zero at the Satellite Applications Catapult (the Catapult). This set the context by defining what we mean by Net Zero – the condition when the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals – and the effects of climate change. To limit global warming to 1.5°C requires 50% reduction by 2030 and Net Zero by 2050. Satellites have a critical role in driving policy, with over 50% of essential climate variables (ECVs) measured from Space. However, the role of satellites is most vast, and satellites and space technology play an ever-evolving role in all sectors, beyond just Earth Observation. Some questions to consider are: how can technology developed for space be applied on Earth for Net Zero innovation? How can we create new Net Zero space economy, with investment for commercial and equitable services? How can we stimulate demand for Net Zero innovation?

Talks on New Opportunities for Space-Enabled Net Zero

David Homfray, Space Energy Lead at the Catapult, gave an overview of the Space Energy Initiative (SEI) and the concept of Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP). The SEI is an organisation promoting the UK programme for SBSP. By 2050, we need to have replaced around 40-billion Megawatt Hours of energy production and there is no single solution; hence we need a portfolio of options. SBSP is a concept which can provide baseload power supply. The concept is a large satellite in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) which uses mirrors to harness sunlight, convert this into electricity, and beam to Earth using radio waves. Each satellite shall produce 2 Gigawatts of continuous power (as there is no day/night constraint). Over the next 12 years, a programme will demonstrate SBSP, de-risk the challenges involved, and commercialise and industrialise SBSP with high throughput manufacturing for in-orbit assembly. David informed the audience that the cost is equivalent to half that of a new nuclear build and that as time is of the essence to achieve Net Zero by 2050, this must be a candidate for supplying baseload power. SBSP requires significant investment but can support Net Zero by 2050 and result in other economically beneficial spinouts and spill-over technologies. Here is a video for more information on SEI and SBSP.

Next, from Dr Onur Çelik (University of Glasgow) we heard about another Space-Based Solar Power solution: orbiting solar reflectors. The concept is to place large, thin, and steerable reflectors in low Earth orbit (LEO) that can redirect sunlight to solar farms on Earth, essentially extending the day for solar energy production on Earth which is currently limited to production during daytime only. This is not a new concept, it has been proposed historically, and today is used to deliver sunlight into some towns in Norway. Reduced launch costs can now enable this to become reality. Compared to SBSP, this concept is simpler in terms of technology and feasibility and requires no changes to ground-based infrastructure, although the power production is lower. Dr Çelik stated that at the maximum, around 33 Megawatt Hours of energy can be delivered by one reflector to one solar farm in about 17 mins and repeated daily. In addition to the production of electricity, orbital solar reflectors may also provide benefits in biofuel production, carbon capture technologies, on-demand illumination, etc. Effects on space sustainability are being investigated, to ensure end of life, space debris, stray light, etc. are all considered in the development of this concept.

The fourth talk was given by Dr Andrew Wilson (University of Strathclyde) on space sector emissions and life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA). Dr Wilson posed the problem that the space sector has been slow to address its own sustainability and now this is being questioned, the ability to measure and quantify changes/improvements is required. A solution is to tackle this early from a design perspective and one approach is through concurrent engineering using LCSA. LCSA takes several environmental, social, economic, etc. factors, considers the lifecycle of a system, and balances its effects on numerous impact categories. An evaluation is then computed, and its effects quantified. Dr Wilson referenced various studies which have used this approach (some of which can be found in the literature). In one study, on global space activities, Dr Wilson showed based on a launch rate of 750 per year, the space sector would be the 21st largest GHG emitter, if it were a country. Dr Wilson also highlighted the importance of considering many impact categories to see the overall effects. More needs to be done as the space sector is behind other sectors but have opportunity to prevent negative trends.

Finally, Krupa Nanda Kumar, Climate Services Development Lead at Space4Climate (S4C), spoke about UK Earth Observation (EO) bridging the gap to Net Zero, which revisited some of the topics covered in part one of this mini-series. Space4Climate is a not-for-profit organisation, chaired by UKSA, for the UK to support the development of EO products on climate data for various sectors and markets. S4C supports the whole pipeline of data creation, dataset collation and platforms, data verification and quality assurance, big data analytics, and value-added services. The UK has invested in major, critical climate missions: TRUTHS, MicroCARB, and BIOMASS, to provide revolutionary data and enable new services. To-date, several partners of S4C have produced existing and evolving tools on Net Zero actions using EO data and will continue to support the growth and adoption of these services in the UK.

During the Q&A session topics covered were broadly around the major challenges of the new opportunities discussed during the talks.

  • The main technical challenge for SBSP is the wireless power transmission over long distances at high power densities – aiming to achieve around 250W/m2.
  • For orbital solar reflectors, the biggest challenge pertains to the aspects of focusing the beam and hence the attitude and orbital control system (AOCS) of the large structure (bigger than the international space station).
  • In discussion about the benefits of reusable launchers, Dr Wilson mentioned that while GHG emissions and climate impacts (especially on the oceans) may appear to be reduced, we need to consider the whole picture (i.e., emissions from recovery and refurbishment, etc.). Lots of information on launchers is highly confidential and we need to address this and become more open.
  • There is a need to understand what missions are needed to support Net Zero targets, to focus on existing gaps, and to effectively support policy and decision making.
  • If one sector fails to achieve Net Zero, then we all fail. We all have the same goal, and we need to strive toward it. Collaboration, playing to own strengths, and working with variety of organisations to drive UK on policy to drive innovation and sharing of best practice is required.
  • Infrastructure in space brings net positive benefits but we need to also see space as an ecosystem which needs to be carefully managed. There is a case for space to be 18th sustainable development goal. End-of-life operations default to burning spacecraft in the Earth’s atmosphere, but we need to understand the effects of this and questions whether this is the best approach, and should we instead reuse and recycle in space?
  • There is significant work and initiatives in place to push spatial finance tools to becoming business-as-usual within financial institutions (leveraging EO date). But it has been slow to incorporate into traditional financial processes. Many of these tools are still in the piloting stage and S4C continues to operate a task force working on services for financial institutions.
  • With all of these new opportunities, social acceptance is vital. We need to take a journey with the public and show them its value. We cannot wait for the public perception to change in reaction to the looming crisis.

Summary

The webinar was a success, thank you to everyone that joined us and engaged with the speakers – we look forward to hosting more webinars soon. If you would like to suggest a topic for the next emerging space technologies webinar, please get in touch with us via

The previous session in our Emerging Technologies for Space Webinar series was the first part of the two-part mini-series on Space-Enabled Net Zero by 2050. A follow-up blog post on the ‘Space Enabled Net Zero by 2050: Monitoring and Data Science’ webinar summarised the talks and discussion.