there’s a starman waiting in the sky, he’s told us not to blow it

Could space exploration be our saviour from climate catastrophe? Last year I attended a talk by Professor Brian Cox where he was asked this question by a member of the audience, in a roundabout way. He replied, in a roundabout way, that it could be.

According to the Professor, there are “unlimited and fascinating beautiful stores of resources out there in the solar system” if future human endeavour could work out a way to tap into them. Take Titan, for instance – Saturn’s largest moon. This is wrapped in a thick dense atmosphere and swamped in oceans of liquid methane.

The moon could also be potentially mined for helium 3, a valuable fuel source which could feed future generations of commercial reactors. And lets not forget the asteroids – geologists believe these hold iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth.

Whether space-based resource extraction becomes a reality in our lifetime, there is certainly a lot of research being dedicated within astronautic circles (or should I say orbits) to the concept. Perhaps more pressing however, is the documentation of our climatic pathways, and this is something that NASA has a firm grip on.

The International Space Station (ISS), currently gliding in low Earth orbit, is an ideal platform for conducting such research. Europe’s scientific community is already using the ISS in a multitude of areas such as life and microgravity sciences, and now Earth science and climate change is increasingly on the radar.

According to the European Space Agency, the ISS could be utilised as an observation laboratory for studies into global change, supplementing signals from dedicated satellites. It makes sense on a humanitarian level too – ever since Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon in 1969, astronauts have realised the fragility of our planet as viewed from the wider solar system.

Beaming this realisation back home to us on a daily basis is ISS commander Chris Hadfield, who is currently tweeting from space. His breathtaking photos are often accompanied with gentle insight, warning us that it wouldn’t take much to press the self-destruct button:

“Our Earth is mostly liquid rock. We live on a thin crust, with occasional hot spots”

“Oil drilling draws a circuit board on the ochre landscape”

“All water on Earth is recycled sewage, if you think about it. Dinosaurs were big, and were here for a long, long time”

“Mama Iceberg and her litter of baby ice cubes, slowly melting into the South Atlantic Ocean”

Hadfield’s connection with his earth-bound comrades through social media is the real gem here. From a communications perspective, his dedication to documenting and sharing the beauty of our planet, as well as its plight, is worth a thousand scientific papers. Why? Because people can relate to it.

There are many worthy ambassadorial climate contenders out there, but perhaps none as effective as Hadfield and his crew members aboard the ISS. They are circling our world. They are studying the bigger picture quite literally when it comes to our future survival prospects – whether it’s on the planet we call Earth, or beyond.

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